Unai Emery’s side didn’t just beat the reigning champions at Villa Park on Wednesday — they dominated the game in a fashion few have been able to achieve over a Guardiola-led team since he started as manager with Barcelona in 2008.
Villa beat Man City 1-0 thanks to a deflected effort from Leon Bailey, who was outstanding, but it only told half the story. The home side had 22 shots while City couldn’t muster a meaningful attempt after the 11th minute, when striker Erling Haaland drew a rare save from Emi Martinez.
It was a night when Villa looked like legitimate title challengers while City showcased the reasons why this might be the year they relinquish their crown.
“The better team won,” Guardiola said afterward. “Aston Villa were better than us. We struggled to make some processes and it was really difficult because they are really physical and able to control many aspects.
“That is the reason why they are up there, playing good football and we could not do it. It’s my duty, my job to find a way to come back because over many years together we were able to find a way to play games, sometimes playing good, sometimes, not but always we found a way to do it and now we are struggling.”
It’s now four Premier League games without a win for City — matching their longest winless run in the league under Guardiola — and more proof of how important Rodri is to their hopes of success this season. With the Spain international suspended, Guardiola couldn’t find any of the midfield control he craves and the only surprise was that Villa took as long as 74 minutes to score when Bailey twice chopped past Josko Gvardiol and scored with a heavy deflection off Rúben Dias.
During the first half alone, Villa had 13 shots — the most faced by a team managed by Guardiola in a league game — and it took a string of saves from Éderson to ensure the two teams somehow went in level at the break.
Rodri has missed four domestic games this season and City have lost them all. As important as Haaland and Dias are, they simply cannot do without their holding midfielder. Fortunately for Guardiola, he’ll be back to play Luton Town on Sunday.
“Rodri is an important player of course but when he is not there we have to find a way to win without him,” said Guardiola. “Six points [off the top] and we would prefer to be top of the league but we made three draws and lost today. We have to change the dynamic, winning as soon as possible against Luton and Crystal Palace to continue to be there.”
Villa have their own crucial game at the weekend when Arsenal visit Villa Park and if the title is only quietly being mentioned in the pubs around Aston at the moment, the lid won’t stay on the excitement if they can beat Mikel Arteta’s team. After 14 home wins in a row for Villa — matching a club record first set in 1903 — and a perfect seven out of seven this season, there’s no reason why not.
Arsenal were the last team to win away in the Premier League at Villa Park in February but Villa, boosted by some shrewd summer transfer business, are now a different prospect. Third in the table and just four points off the top, only City have scored more goals this season and with Bailey and Ollie Watkins in particular, they are a team full of attacking intent. That should worry an Arsenal team who conceded three at Luton on Tuesday.
Guardiola said afterwards in his post-match news conference that Villa have to be considered title challengers but Emery, who beat Guardiola for the first time after 15 years of trying, is not ready to agree — yet.
“We have to be excited but we need to keep the balance,” he said. “For now we have to be focused on Arsenal on Saturday. I want us to be a team with a winning mentality and be balanced. If we can keep taking this process and winning of course we have to believe. The last match against Bournemouth we nearly lost. We have to be consistent.”
After a week during which Guardiola was unusually bullish about City’s title hopes, the only real takeaway from Villa Park was that Emery and his players are the real deal. If Arsenal can underpin their credentials with a last-minute winner at Luton then why shouldn’t Villa’s domination of the best team in Europe be considered a similar statement of intent?
Guardiola, certainly, won’t be quite so sure about that fourth title in a row while the flickers of belief will be sparking in Emery.