Pep Guardiola believes Manchester City need time to hit top form after they ground out a 1-0 win over Arsenal on Saturday to move three points off the top of the Premier League table.
City dropped points in their two previous league games before the international break and were again far from their free-flowing best without the injured Kevin De Bruyne and Aymeric Laporte.
But after a short pre-season and a host of positive coronavirus tests and injuries, Guardiola is content just to be back in the pack near the top of the table.
“We are not unfortunately able to sustain for 90 minutes the way we want to play, but these games help us achieve it,” said Guardiola.
“We need time to grow as a team. I think this game is going to help us to make a step forward.”
On another high-scoring Saturday elsewhere in the English top-flight, the mutual respect between Guardiola and his former assistant Mikel Arteta led to a far more cautious encounter.
Arteta got the better of his old boss when the sides last met in the FA Cup semi-finals in July and Guardiola responded with a change to a 3-5-2 system to match up with Arsenal.
That pushed Raheem Sterling up front alongside Sergio Aguero, who was making his first appearance since June.
And Sterling was on hand to grab the only goal after Bernd Leno could only parry Phil Foden’s initial effort.
“Right now he is our best striker in sensing more chances to score a goal,” added Guardiola.
– ‘Come a long way’ -Arsenal remain without an away league win against one of the ‘big six’ in 29 games dating back to January 2015.
And despite a spirited performance, the fact they have lost again at Liverpool and the Etihad in the first five games of the campaign shows the strides Arteta still has to make to restore the Gunners to title contenders.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Arteta. “I am upset because I think we deserve more from the game.
“I am extremely happy about the performance, the attitude, the courage to play they way we did today. I cannot demand much more from the players apart from the three big chances we have, you have to score.”
Arsenal were left to rue two huge opportunities late in the first-half as they were denied by City goalkeeper Ederson.
Bukayo Saka was the visitors’ biggest threat and the 19-year-old was denied by a brilliant Ederson save after a neat one-two with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Aubameyang was next to fire too close to the Brazilian stopper when he was one-on-one and onside despite the linesman’s flag being raised.
Arsenal also saw strong penalty appeals fall on deaf ears with the final action of the first-half when Kyle Walker’s high foot was not punished as he challenged Gabriel Magalhaes inside the area.
The presence of De Bruyne was missed as City again failed to control of the game once in front.
Leicester came from behind to win 5-2 at the Etihad and Leeds also took a deserved point after a blistering opening from City before the international break.
Far from the attacking force of the past three seasons, City were happy to sit on their lead after the break.
But in a second period short on goalmouth action, Nicolas Pepe’s weak header that was easily claimed by Ederson was the closest Arsenal came to an equaliser.