Pep Guardiola went all Zen.
‘The mind and head can always control your body,’ he said, a mantra that should chime among a wounded Manchester City. ‘We had the willing to make more effort.’
The injuries, most of them muscular, keep coming —Aymeric Laporte, Kevin De Bruyne, Benjamin Mendy and Gabriel Jesus the headline absentees this week — but here was some fibre.
City ground out their victory and these strange times have left their manager reaching for different qualities.
He has almost abandoned the obsession with a perfect build-up from the back for now, knowing that City are nowhere near their fluid best. The words stable and solid rolled off the tongue.
Guardiola always demands the fundamentals but it is rare that he openly fixates on them. Yet that is where City are: searching for form.
Trouble is, the Premier League will not wait and results are a necessity while they attempt to find rhythm.
Ruben Dias, whose first two appearances at centre half since moving from Benfica have been solid and stable, is learning on the job. Bernardo Silva and Sergio Aguero both featured for the first time this season.
This is by no means ideal for a team who fell woefully short last year and, before any normal campaign, would have found pre-season on Guardiola’s watch a gruelling experience.
City were not afforded that — they had a little over a week’s worth of sessions — and now they are playing catch-up, particularly when only half a dozen outfield first-team players have remained injury or Covid-free in the first month.
Irrespective of money spent or squad depth, that is a scenario most teams could not contend with.
‘We’d love to train more,’ Guardiola said. ‘But we are not an exception, the teams competing in Europe are the same.’ Although he did add: ‘Liverpool and Arsenal started (training) three weeks before us.’
In this strangest of seasons, however, City can still go level on points with the defending champions should they beat Aston Villa in their game in hand.
And despite shipping five at home against Leicester, City somehow have a break-even goal difference.
Arsenal, meanwhile, showed glimpses and forced Ederson into two stunning stops, but they still have not beaten a Big Six rival away from the Emirates since January 2015.
‘I’m extremely proud of the way we played,’ Mikel Arteta said. ‘Games are decided in the box. When you get there you have to put them away.’
Raheem Sterling did just that before half-time — a 35th club goal in 14 months — and City made sure they saw it out thereafter with more grit than their supporters are used to seeing.
Guardiola’s job is to retain that attitude as they bounce from one game to the next. Porto arrive at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday and there is no free midweek until New Year. Their squad could really do without more bumps, bruises and tight hamstrings.
It will be interesting to see how their pack is shuffled for the Champions League opener.
Will Guardiola rest some key players but not others, and then do the same at West Ham next Saturday? Or will he stick with the majority of his first-choice side but approach the games in a lower gear?
‘They are not machines, they need time to get the condition,’ Guardiola said. ‘We’ve played good, but the good thing is when we’re not playing like we want, we were incredibly stable.’