Defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday came as a shock to Manchester City, yet the 2019/20 season hasn’t seen the Blues at their blistering best too often, already eight points behind Liverpool in the title race, but just what’s wrong with Pep Guardiola?
Liverpool have been staggeringly sensational, that much must be said, they’ve played eight Premier League matches this term and have recorded eight victories, with Saturday’s triumph over Leicester City coming with the very last kick of the game.
Jurgen Klopp has taken both the disappointment of losing the league title to City by one point last term, as well as the sheer jubilation of a Champions League final victory and managed to forge ahead with a team appearing to be more motivated than ever.
With Guardiola‘s team having won the domestic title, they fell well short in the Champions League, being eliminated at the quarter-final stage for the second successive season, but that disappointment doesn’t appear to have galvanised the team as the Reds’ respective hurt has.
There are, though, a number of factors at play in Manchester City‘s drop in standard, and not all of them are completely related to the Spanish coach although few will have any sympathy for one of the richest clubs in world football.
Vincent Kompany‘s departure didn’t come as a shock to anyone, he could have pretty much walked straight out of the stadium and never looked back after his title-winning strike against Leicester City, but the decision not to replace him was a surprise.
Defence has never been Guardiola‘s main focus, he’ll be the first to admit that, but leaving himself with a senior core of John Stones, Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi was a gamble.
Yes, Manchester City were interested in Harry Maguire, but not at the 85 million euros Manchester United eventually paid, and there was the presence of academy starlet, Eric Garcia to consider if things got tricky.
Tricky is an understatement, and City’s position became precarious almost instantly with both Stones and Laporte suffering injuries which will keep them out for a significant period of time, forcing the former Barcelona coach to play Fernandinho and Otamendi in defence.
It’s not just at centre-half where the Blues are struggling either, with Benjamin Mendy still an absentee, and Leroy Sane and Kevin de Bruyne both suffering with their own ailments.
Joao Cancelo was used as an auxiliary left-back in Sunday’s 2-0 defeat and he made a significant individual error which led to Adama Traore‘s first goal, and interestingly the Portuguese international is the fourth different left-back Guardiola has used in his last four matches.
Guardiola‘s teams are historically easy to pick in advance, he does, for the most part, stick to his strongest XI, yet he has lost all consistency in his selections this term, and we’re seeing the effect of that on the pitch.
In just eight matches in the Premier League this season, the Citizens have conceded nine goals, yet in the 2018/19 campaign it took them a grand total of 16 games to concede that many.
“The challenge of winning the Premier League again after being two-time champions is going to be very big for us,” Guardiola admitted after the 3-1 victory over Bournemouth on August 25.
Guardiola has appeared irritated for much of the campaign, mainly at the praise given to Liverpool, despite falling short in the league last term, and with the Manchester City fans’ attitude towards the Champions League, the competition which the Spaniard values above all others.
After a 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur at the start the season, Guardiola made particular reference to VAR.
“Last season it was offside, this time it was handball,” he fumed.
“Erik Lamela fouled Rodri in the penalty area, but the VAR people must have been having a cup of coffee at that moment.”
Whilst this may seem like a harmless jibe, Barcelona fans will attest that this is eerily similar to his final months at the Camp Nou, where the coach felt like everything going on behind the scenes at the club was against him.
Manchester City fans have spent years crowing over the incredible infrastructure that the Abu Dhabi United Group has put in place for the club, and the academy is a fundamental part of that.
Vast amounts of money have been spent, not only on building the finest training facilities in England, but also in the young players that represent the club at every age group.
Phil Foden is the star light of the club’s academy, the player who some already consider to have the talent to be world class in the same way Jadon Sancho was almost as soon as he arrived in Germany.
Sancho‘s departure was unfortunate for Manchester City, but not disastrous, but you can see why the winger elected to leave the club.
Minutes have been hard to come by for the club’s academy prospects, with the most puzzling situation being that of Garcia in the midst of such an injury crisis.
Foden needs to be playing, and Guardiola just seems too afraid to take a risk by playing him, even if his numbers on paper would look okay given his age.
The problem is quality of minutes, which doesn’t show up in the statistics almanac released at the turn of every year.
Foden has received minutes, but how many of those appearances have been for three to four minutes with the Blues already comfortably ahead in a match?
Many thought Guardiola had turned the corner when he started Foden in a must-win match against Spurs in the title run-in near the end of the 2018/19 season, and he responded by scoring the winning goal, but since then he’s refused to use him as much.
“When the kids are talented, they will play, but at the same time we have to compete every day to fight with the best in England and Europe,” he explained after the victory over Dinamo Zagreb.
“For that we need the David Silvas, Kevin de Bruynes, Sergio Agueros and Fernadinhos, but if the basis of the team is young, it’s impossible.”
What Manchester City did to every Premier League club in 2017/18, Liverpool are now doing to them with the Reds simply not slipping up.
Starting a season with eight successive victories is definitely championship form, even if there are still 30 matches to go, and Liverpool fans know better than anyone just how things can go horribly wrong.
If Manchester City want to complete the hat-trick of titles which Sir Alex Ferguson set as the benchmark for a truly memorable team, they will have to overcome the Merseyside club, and at the moment that looks difficult.
City have to stop dropping points, and hope that Liverpool‘s form drops, and perhaps the only crumb of encouragement for Guardiola in this regard is the incredible unbeaten run the Blues went on after slipping up against Newcastle in January of last season.