After Manchester City’s 2-5 home reverse against Leicester, Paul questions the strength of resolve of the City squad as well as Pep Guardiola’s last 12 months in charge.
Rodri’s post-match comments that Leicester were “lucky” to walk away from the Etihad Stadium with three points after “playing with 11 guys behind the ball” felt like a toxic cocktail of sour grapes and bullshit. If a team can play that way and score 5 times away at the four-time Premier League champions, Rodri and his team-mates should be questioning themselves, not Lady Luck.
But the wounds which City will be licking this week before a tough away assignment at Elland Road are a lot deeper than succumbing to a Jamie Vardy-inspired Leicester side who have started the season with aplomb. Since winning the domestic treble in 2018/19, it has been a series of false dawns for Manchester City and Pep Guardiola.
Last season, the rot started with the seemingly bizarre refusal to sign a proper replacement for Vincent Kompany. Going into a defence of a title as well as a bid to win a first Champions League with only three recognised centre backs, two of whom Guardiola had little to no faith in, was criminal for a club with the riches at their disposal. The issue was exacerbated with an injury to Joan Laporte, City’s best centre back. That’s unfortunate. But when error-prone John Stone and Nicolas Otamendi are the only in-house replacements, it is unfathomable.
Then we must look at some of their results last season, where they lost NINE Premier League games, in a season where champions Liverpool lost just three and one of the weakest Manchester United squads in history lost eight. Sure, at times the Citizens were unplayable, and handed out several thrashings – showing themselves to be flat-track bullies at times as they put 5 past West Ham, Norwich, Newcastle and Burnley; 6 past Aston Villa and 8 past Watford on their way to registering 102 goals in the top flight. Their 4-0 win over Champions elect Liverpool in July was a reminder to the Merseysiders that City would be breathing down their next this season. However, the season was punctuated with poor defensive performances and defeats – not only against some of the league’s heavyweights – they were ‘doubled’ by their city rivals and lost the reverse fixture against Liverpool, as well as defeats by Chelsea and Spurs – but also lost more carelessly to Norwich, Wolves (twice) and Southampton.
Of course, all clubs are allowed to lose, and perhaps the manner of Liverpool’s juggernaut-like charge to the title exaggerated City’s frailties, but by the time they lost 0-1 to Southampton, it no longer felt like a surprise. Why? Because Pep’s usually heralded tactics and ability to outsmart his rival managers seem to have faded a little. A defence containing not only Stones and Otamendi, but an aging Kyle Walker and an improving but inconsistent left-back Olexander Zinchenko leaves much to be desired, especially considering the only real back-up was makeshift defender Fernandinho, who was then missed in the middle of the park, and injury prone Bernard Mendy.
It isn’t only in defence where City are lacking. Guardiola’s constant tinkering of his midfield created some level of inconsistency going forward. He left out the Premier League’s best player Kevin De Bruyne for ‘lesser’ games, such as the defeat to Norwich and persisted in playing Ilkay Gundogan in an attacking midfield role when the likes of Phil Foden and Bernardo Silva were getting their backsides sore on the bench. Up front, Sergio Aguero, whilst undoubtedly still a fine striker, is spending more time on the treatment table as he approaches the Autumn of his career and Gabriel Jesus has never quite proven to be a consistent replacement for the Argentine.
Some of this has been addressed over the summer, whereby Nathan Ake has been signed from relegated Bournemouth and Ferran Torres has been acquired to fill the squad gap left by Leroy Sane, but last season’s woes were exploited by a Leicester side who sat back and hit City on the break with Vardy’s pace, a reminder of the Foxes’ fairy tale title win of 2016. City’s fans are urging Pep and the club’s higher brass to spend more and Benfica’s centre back Ruben Dias looks to be next in the door. More might be needed – in central midfield and up front Man City lack balance and strength in depth.
The Champions League campaign of last season wasn’t ended by Bayern Munich, or Juventus, or Paris Saint Germain, but by Lyon. Yes, the side from the south of France got to the final and have no lack of quality, but the way City were swept aside 3-1 exposed the rather large chinks in their proverbial armour. The desire of the club has always been to be crowned European Champions and Guardiola, now in his 5th season at the club, must now feel the pressure to bring the trophy to the east side of Manchester.
Where at Barcelona, Guardiola had Lionel Messi to get his side out of a hole and at Bayern Munich, he had both Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben to do the same, this Manchester City side – now without the mercurial David Silva, Aguero injured and the influential Kompany retired – have no such saviour. Pep has always had it quite ‘easy’ in the past – managing clubs with the biggest resources and wealth in the league – and the tactics to overwhelm opposition. However, they are no longer the tactics which work in every single game; such ‘fads’ seem to have cycles of success and some opposition teams and smarter managers have worked out what a Pep side will do. Now is the test of his undoubted quality, will he adapt and change for different opposition rather than stubbornly sticking with what he knows?
To avoid falling further behind Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool and being caught up by the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, Pep’s talk at the tactics board may well be just as crucial as the last week in the transfer market.