Last summer’s flagship signing made its mark, as did this year’s. Jack Grealish and Erling Haaland sit side by side in Manchester City’s forward line and squad, but the similarities end there. The Norwegian’s usual and inevitable strike took his tally to 14 goals in just 10 games for City. Grealish, who joined 12 months earlier, has assisted as many – seven goals – in 13 months. The striker is prolific, the winger accused of being unproductive. If Grealish needed a goal, Haaland didn’t but scored one anyway. He always does.
Phil Foden also struck, but on a weekend when Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United are out, City only really needed to play for the opening 16 minutes, in which Grealish and Haaland claimed victory. While the striker’s presence on the scoresheet was predictable, the surprise came in the way of his goal – a first from outside the box in City colors for the king of the penalty area – on role reversal background. The predatory close-range finish came from Grealish, the kind he scored too rarely in a City career where his £100million fee was a grindstone and he was neither the maverick darling of Aston Villa nor a player imbued with enhanced efficiency by Pep Guardiola.
But back in his native Midlands, Grealish scored in the first minute to propel City into first place. They may win routine cases, but their away record is extraordinary. They are unbeaten in 22 league matches on their travels. As Haaland continues to rack up remarkable numbers, becoming the first player to score in his first four Premier League games on the road and taking his tally for Borussia Dortmund and City to 100 goals in 99 outings, the collective excellence of City can go unnoticed.
For the Wolves, however, a familiar fate took on ominous proportions. There was a time when they were a ghost team for Guardiola’s City, but that seems increasingly distant. Bruno Lage’s shy side started the season slowly and looked weak amid a sloppy start. The strength they showed came from Nathan Collins, who was fired for a kung fu kick where he managed to drive his studs into Grealish’s stomach. It was dangerous and reckless rather than malicious, but his three-game ban calls into question Lage’s decision to exile Conor Coady. Ruben Neves spent the rest of the game in central defense after Collins left, hardly the best use of his talents.
Granted, Wolves conceded fewer goals with the playmaker at the back. They were gutted while Collins was still on the court. If Grealish was stung by critics over his lackluster performance against Dortmund, his response was immediate. The minute of silence lasted longer than the parity period, with Wolves trailing by less than 55 seconds. Foden took out the overlapping Kevin de Bruyne with a backheel, the Belgian crossed and Grealish came inside the penalty area to provide the poacher’s finish.
It was hardly a typical Grealish goal, but the kind that Guardiola has long coached his wingers to score: it was more of a Raheem Sterling strike or, given the new focus on a striker, a Haaland goal. And instead, the target man, who scored hat tricks from a cumulative distance of less than 20 yards, showed he could expand his repertoire. After the astonishing acrobatic volley against Dortmund, a first long-range goal, but in a slightly less spectacular style. He fired a shot off his less favored right foot after hanging on to Bernardo Silva’s pass. Seemingly taking a liking to it, he had a second shot of similar range parried by Jose Sa.
Collins’ unworthy exit heightened feelings that it was a mismatch. City did not display the vengeful streak that could have turned it into a rout, settling for one more goal, set up by their magnificent supplier. De Bruyne scored four goals in his previous trip to Molineux. He finished a comeback with two assists, both of which came from low crosses from the right. Foden converted the second superbly, fishing a shot.
It gave them as many goals in an afternoon as Wolves have scored this season. There were glimpses of spirit in the second half and Collins’ early exit was a mitigating factor, but their performance was a puff. Deprived of a striker with Raul Jimenez out for a few weeks, Sasa Kalajdzic was sidelined for six months and with this week’s signing Diego Costa not even deemed fit enough to appear on a padded bench with children, Lage fielded erratic goalscorer Daniel Podence alone in attack. About 30cm shorter than his City counterpart Haaland, they are separated in size and number of goals. If no one else has Haaland, the problem for Wolves is that no one has fewer goals than them.