Something really needs to be done about these humdrum mid-table Premier League games. Perhaps the next mutation of Project Big Picture will have something to say about fixtures like these: two flawed, ambition-free sides in pure survival mode, both ultimately grateful for the point. Maybe it’s time for the likes to Everton and Aston Villa to cut the Manchester Citys of this world loose.
We’re joking, sort of. But it said a good deal, not just about this game but about the trajectories of the two clubs involved, that at full-time both sets of players looked equally disappointed. West Ham may have ridden their luck a touch. They may have spent most of the last half-hour defending. But this was a game that could just as easily gone their way. They know, as do most of their rivals, that this City is currently there for the taking.
This is not a new story. Their decline over the past 12 months has been gradual, inexorable and naturally still punctured by moments of real translucent inspiration, great performances, towering individual flourishes. But at the moment they feel like a half-present team: a team against the tide, drifting in and out of their old selves, able to glimpse it in parts, but never the whole thing for the whole time.
This was a precis of many of their recent performances: dignified, professional and yet essentially incomplete. Their first half was abominable: one-paced, short of ideas and curiously lacking in conviction.
The second, following the introduction of the sugary Phil Foden, was better. And yet here again, missed chances and imperfect decision-making proved the difference between one point and three. Sergio Agüero’s hamstring injury again leaves them without a recognised striker. In his place Raheem Sterling missed two fine chances to win the game late on.
For David Moyes’s cautiously evolving squad, meanwhile, another half-step in the right direction. Having taken an early and spectacular lead through the flying boot of Michail Antonio, they withstood the inevitable second-half backlash with guts, organisation and judgment. Declan Rice was colossal in midfield. Lukasz Fabianski’s saves kept them in it at the death.
“We could have played much better,” Moyes said. “But brilliant character by the players. We defended really well.”
Antonio’s goal was a piece of art: using the heft of Rúben Dias to winch his body into position and uncoiling a bicycle kick past Ederson, who was unsighted. City howled purposelessly for a handball by Tomas Soucek, but the blame was their own: João Cancelo finding himself isolated, with too little pressure on Vladimir Coufal’s cross.
Moyes’s gameplan was working a treat: a deep, well-drilled back five, the pace of Jarrod Bowen on the break and with Antonio as a barrelling one-man agent of chaos up front there was always a pressure-release available.