Manchester City stutters leave Pep Guardiola facing a conflation of questions
Manchester City are uncharacteristically uncertain at the moment, and Pep Guardiola has a conflation of issues to deal with regarding his misfiring squad.
At around the hour mark in the derby on Saturday lunchtime, all seemed set fair for Manchester City and Pep Guardiola. City had played out a fairly pallid first half, but they’d improved in the opening stages of the second and the introduction of Jack Grealish, who scored two minutes after his introduction, felt like the sort of tactical masterstroke that has come to be readily associated with this club in recent years.
But while attention has been lavished on Manchester United’s equalising goal and the extent to which this suddenly flipped the scoreline on its head, there is a grim truth hidden in the fallout of this match, that this defeat wasn’t solely the result of that one particular moment; Manchester City have been coughing and spluttering since shortly before the World Cup break.
The players left for the Middle East off the back of a 2-1 home defeat by Brentford, and since then they’ve been held at home in the league by Everton and knocked out of the EFL Cup by Southampton. But form has been patchy than just plain bad. Over that same period, they won comfortably against Leeds, edged past Liverpool in the previous round of the EFL Cup and beat (an admittedly enfeebled) Chelsea in both the league and the FA Cup, the latter by such a handsome margin that it felt like the springboard towards them getting some colour back in their cheeks.
But defeat in the derby felt like a shift in the sands. Even throughout the worst of times, United could occasionally turn it on in this match, but their occasional wins usually felt like an exception rather than a rule. On this occasion, it was different. United were back. The crashing waves of noise that accompanied every solid tackle. The swagger and the rub of the green. It felt like scales tipping back in a direction they haven’t been in for some considerable time.
All of this leaves Pep Guardiola with riddles that he may not be able to completely solve before the end of this season. Manchester City are a different team. The arrival of Erling Haaland last summer necessitated change to the way the team moved the ball around the pitch, and when that has worked the results have been obviously sensational; Haaland remains on course to become the Premier League’s record goalscorer in a season by some considerable margin.
The issue seems obvious. Haaland is a goalscoring machine. His movement, touch and finishing are at a different level to almost any other striker in the world. But he also feels like a finely-tuned machine, and like many finely-tuned machines (and his not-insubstantial physical heft) there seems to be a fragility at his heart. This isn’t a matter of his previous injury record – that hasn’t been an issue so far this season – but of his impact in games.
It can feel like Manchester City are playing with ten men when he’s not getting the service he requires. This all raises the question of whether teams in the modern era can afford this sort of player, whether his lack of engagement in the game might even end up costing more through points dropped than even 21 goals in 17 games can cover. This may well end up as one of football’s unanswerable questions, but it’s one that Guardiola needs to try to find a way of answering.
The issues don’t end there, of course. Kevin De Bruyne has been playing with a perma-scowl since the World Cup, as though the wind changed direction at some point during Belgium’s final group match and his face actually did stay like that. If De Bruyne is the main supply-line to Haaland, then the latter’s form is directly linked to the former. Getting the captain back on top of his game could be the key to reigniting their season.
And the midfield looks like an issue, with Rodri the only member currently playing close to the fullness of their capability. The acquisition of Kalvin Phillips last summer hasn’t solved anything, while the form of other players such as Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo seems to have significantly dipped. There have been times since they got back from the World Cup when they’ve looked like they could do with a holiday.
But would even that be enough? There’s been an uncertainty about Manchester City over these last few weeks. The 4-0 win against Chelsea showed that the muscle memory that comes with winning four of the last five Premier League titles is still very much present. But it’s flickering and faltering. The Manchester United game was a case in point. Over the course of the 90 minutes United were the better team, but City had improved from half-time on and took the lead; in previous seasons, they’d have wiped their brows and moved on to kill the game off. On this occasion that didn’t happen and it’s not the first time in recent weeks.
Guardiola has options in attack. Julian Alvarez has now returned from the World Cup, a tournament during which he shone, and provides an alternative or perhaps even complement to Haaland. Of course, dropping someone who’s averaging more than a goal a game would be exceptionally difficult, so it would likely have to be the latter and may require a tactical shift that the manager would not want to make.
The January transfer window is an obvious option, but Manchester City usually prefer to do their business quickly and quietly, as they did with Alvarez this time last year and Haaland at the start of last summer. This break is notoriously terrible for value for money and everybody knows just how deep City’s pockets are. And then, who do they bring in anyway? This is when they need an Oleksandr Zinchenko.
In previous seasons, Manchester City’s title wins have been built on catching fire in mid-season, with Pep Guardiola understanding better than any other manager that three points won in October or November are worth exactly as much as three points won on the last day of the season. Last year, City won 12 successive games between the start of November and the middle of January. This time around they’ve dropped eight points over the same time period, and that’s from half as many games.
It may be notable that Manchester City’s form should have stuttered around the interruption for the World Cup. Perhaps when your machine is this well-oiled, you need that constant forward momentum. Perhaps the break was always going to be more problematic for Manchester City than other clubs, and not only because of the minutes their players ran up. Perhaps a machine this finely-tuned cannot simply be switched off for a few weeks and then reignited.
Arsenal’s win in the North London Derby left Manchester City eight points off the top of the Premier League table, and such has been Arsenal’s form, it’s difficult to see where the defeats that City would need to drag themselves back into the title race are going to come from. The FA Cup is obviously still winnable, and any domestic travails would likely be forgotten were they to win the Champions League at the end of this season. If it’s any consolation, Manchester City still feel short of the sort of turmoil in which Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs find themselves.
But there are a conflation of issues at The Etihad Stadium, all of which seem to be feeding into the team’s current lack of consistency. The introduction of a very different type of player requires a shift in the team’s tactical focus. Several key players have not been at their best. Questionable decisions have been taken in the transfer market, both in terms of buying and selling. The interruption of the World Cup and their players cumulatively playing a thousand more minutes than any other squad may not have suited them. Pep Guardiola has a lot to unpick as his team slides further from the Premier League title race.