It is the great Manchester City mystery: a team once likely to rip opposition defences limb from limb has become subdued, almost pragmatic and even a little dull at times. For a team that has won two of the past three Premier League titles, this season so far they’ve won six games, drawn five and lost two — good enough for seventh in the table, but hardly acceptable for a team of Manchester City’s lofty standards. And now a new test: the league cup quarterfinals against struggling Arsenal at the Emirates. (Watch all four quarterfinal matches of the Carabao Cup on ESPN+.)
So what’s gone wrong with Pep Guardiola’s team?
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For a start, the torrent of goals has slowed to a trickle. At this stage last season, City had found the net 40 times. In 2020-21, they’ve scored under half that (19 in 13 games) and five of those came in one game against Burnley. It would have been unthinkable a year ago that City would have been held 1-1 at home by a struggling West Bromwich Albion on Dec. 15, yet they missed a series of late chances, and the Baggies got their point — not that it did much good for manager Slaven Bilic, who was sacked the next day.
Has the fire gone out? There looks to be a drop in desire among the City players, a feeling that the elusive Champions League crown is the top target instead of reclaiming the title in England.
It is not as if Guardiola has taken a deliberate decision to give his side an image makeover or turn them into a defensive mean machine, either, but that’s what has happened. A defence that was flaky at times has conceded just one goal in the past eight matches in all competitions, aided by a stylish return to form by centre-back John Stones and the excellence of summer signing Ruben Dias from Benfica. Indeed, going into Christmas, City have conceded fewer goals than Jose Mourinho’s Spurs, the team that has built a reputation for manning the barricades and relying on ruthless counterattacks.
While Guardiola will cringe at comparisons with his old rival Mourinho, there is evidence of him keeping an eye on his defence to a far great extent than in the past. Perhaps that 5-2 home defeat against Leicester in the second match of the season gave him cause for pause. He may have figured that there could be no European glory as long as his team were that open to swift breaks through a deserted midfield.
With Fernandinho, 35, struggling with injury and perhaps aging legs, Ilkay Gundogan has abandoned his typical creative role going forward and instead sits alongside Rodri in deep midfield. That has certainly led to a better shield in front of the back four, but arguably less intensity when it comes to City winning the ball back in high areas.
Meanwhile, midfield maestro David Silva, who left for Real Sociedad, is proving a harder act to follow in the creative department. Nobody can replicate his clever appreciation of space and angles in tight areas to set up scoring opportunities. For all his potential, Phil Foden is a different type of player who has spent more time on the bench than the pitch. Bernardo Silva, meanwhile, has struggled to find form ever since being one of Guardiola’s most important players in City’s 2018-19 title run.
Of course, the lingering injuries to the club’s record scorer, Sergio Aguero, have been a big factor in a hugely disappointing chance conversion rate of around 30%, which is 13th-best in the Premier League. His deputy, Gabriel Jesus, has been off the boil, failing to score in the past seven games and not even making the matchday squad for the 0-1 win at Southampton. The talented but enigmatic Riyad Mahrez hit his first City hat trick against Burnley, but has scored in only one other game, while Raheem Sterling’s winner at St. Mary’s was just his fourth in the Premier League so far.
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New signing Ferran Torres has been a success story along with Stones, scoring important goals even when used an emergency No. 9, and for all the great debate, City are creeping up the table from the depths of 13th a few weeks ago. They lie eight points behind league leaders Liverpool, which means there is no room for any further slips like their draws with WBA, Leeds, and West Ham and the losses to Leicester and Spurs. As for the Carabao Cup quarterfinal on Tuesday, City should defeat the Gunners who are even closer to the relegation zone than the Top 4.
There is perhaps another factor in this Manchester Malaise mystery, and that is Guardiola himself. He did sign a new contract to extend his stay at the Etihad by another two years, saying he has “unfinished business.” (He surely means winning the Champions League.) In TV interviews and on the touchline, he comes across as more relaxed and philosophical, and less manic in his demand for perfection. He also struggled with a tough and unexpected Champions League exit to Lyon in the summer, a defeat that caused his critics to accuse him, fairly, of being excessively cautious. Perhaps he was mentally fatigued and perhaps, too, that has indirectly affected some of City’s flat displays.
Or try another theory: That this brilliant manager is keeping his powder dry, knowing he cannot push his high-class squad too hard, too soon if they are to peak at the business end of this physically draining and hectic season. While that approach could pay big dividends in Europe, it could backfire in the Premier League if Liverpool keep racking up the wins.