Pep Guardiola must fear another sloppy performance has cost Manchester City the slim title hopes they retained before heading to Newcastle. But the champions will be similarly concerned, wondering if their failure to keep pace with Liverpool may cost them Guardiola.
City could finish the weekend 11 points off the leaders and even three points behind Leicester in the race for second best. Liverpool’s relentlessness has seen them pull away from the champions, but Guardiola will recognise that City’s stuttering has allowed the Reds to ease clear, possibly over the horizon and out of sight.
The sluggishness and sloppiness City have exhibited throughout November will infuriate Guardiola as he looks for reasons to extend his contract beyond 2021, or whether to walk away rather than go through the hassle of starting a new cycle at the Etihad.
Twice in the last eight days Guardiola has pinpointed his players as the primary factor in his decision to renew. “It is not about what the club wants or not. For me, I want to see my players and the reaction of my players and everything,” he told his press conference yesterday, a week after he said this: “The moment I will leave is when I feel my team don’t follow me.”
City’s players certainly weren’t following his instructions at Newcastle. Against a home side always expected to sit back, defend deep and look to play on the counter-attack, there was so little of the sharp, incisive passing required to break down a 10-man rearguard and even less of the imagination and drive we have come to know Guardiola’s side for.
Their two goals came courtesy of isolated moments of inspiration from David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. Silva’s beautiful back-heel amid the chaos of the Newcastle box teed up Raheem Sterling, before the Magpies countered with their own moment of class when Jetro Willems and Miguel Almiron combined before the left wing-back provided an equally-clinical finish.
While City flailed in the face of Newcastle’s resistance through the second period, it was left to De Bruyne to drag the struggling visitors in front again when he took all his frustration out on a bouncing ball which nearly took Martin Dubravka’s left hand with it on his way into the net via the underside of the crossbar.
Again, City relinquished a lead within five minutes. Fernandinho was fortunate not to receive a second caution for giving away a foul near the corner of the box and while everyone in blue retreated into the area, no one thought it wise to keep an eye on Jonjo Shelvey lurking just outside it, preparing to perform his party piece.
64.7% – Of players with at least 15 Premier League goals, only David Ginola (66.7%) and Laurent Robert (65.2%) have scored a higher ratio from outside the box than Jonjo Shelvey (11/17). Blast. #NEWMCI
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 30, 2019
City’s mental sloppiness manifested itself also in their technique. In only one game this season have they lost possession more often than the 153 times it was presented back to Newcastle at St James’ Park. That was at home to Southampton, who had just come off a 9-0 humping and were unlucky to lose 2-1 late on at the Etihad. Since that escape on November 2, City have won only one of their five other matches this month, and they should consider themselves fortunate to beat Chelsea last week since they created not a single big chance yet still triumphed 2-1 thanks largely to individual errors from the visitors.
It all leaves City tailing off in the title race, and while injuries to their best centre-back and centre-forward haven’t helped, the champions’ defensive mess is one of their own making after choosing not to replace Vincent Kompany in the summer. That decision reeked of complacency while in contrast, Liverpool refused to let Dejan Lovren leave, and now their fourth-choice centre-back has had to play a pivotal role in recent weeks.
Guardiola has to decide whether he fancies rebuilding a defence currently not fit for purpose and an attack set to lose David Silva, Leroy Sane and perhaps Raheem Sterling if the signs are the manager would rather not bother starting a new cycle. The Spaniard wants his players to be happy but never too comfortable. Guardiola might be wondering whether too many have crossed that line.