Tottenham Hotspur have reached a crucial part of their season, a stretch of four league matches that will ultimately determine if they are true title contenders or if it’s just a race for the top four. The beginning of this stretch starts Saturday at the Etihad Stadium where Pep Guardiola and the Citizens await. City are dealing with their own problems as of late, but are still very much in the thick of the top four race themselves. I sat down with Renato Gonçalves over at Bitter and Blue to talk about Pep Guardiola under fire, what’s going on with City, and if Joe Hart being recalled is the best thing possible right now.
CFC: Normally we start these out with some beat around the bush question but let's get to it: What the heck is wrong with City suddenly? Did losing to Chelsea break Pep's brain forever?
BB: There's a lot wrong with this team, but I don't think Guardiola has the biggest part of the blame, as probably 99% of the press will have you believe. It seems like we've forgotten this team won the first 10 games playing exceptional football, and since then we've seen many injuries and red cards that made things hard for Pep to work with. He's made some mistakes, sure, but the players are not helping. That loss to Chelsea certainly hurts, because City should have won that game 3-0 and Pep would be the GOAT, the one that broke Antonio Conte. Instead, key players missed some easy goals, Chelsea won, Fernandinho and Aguero went nuts, and the team has been on a rollercoaster of bad play, more suspensions and injuries. It's a weird time, but I don't think Pep's at fault here. I honestly don't. He's shown what he can do with his team already, and I'm confident he'll do it again if his best players find a way to stay available to him.
With Fernandino and Gündoğan both out, City's midfield currently consists of the corpse of Yaya Toure and whatever fullback/centerback/waterboy Pep thinks can play alongside of Toure. Is there any possible way that Pep can put together a functioning midfield with what he has until Fernandino comes back from suspension?
No. It's that simple. Fernandinho is too instrumental for a Pep midfield. I'd love to see a Yaya-Silva-DeBruyne trio, but if Touré is the holding midfielder, that trio goes to shit because Yaya can't do that job without a second holding midfielder alongside him. Just gotta wait for Dinho to come back and stop getting stupid red cards, and then things will get better again.
Claudio Bravo appears to be a shell of a broken man. Is there rumblings for Caballero to take over for him given the recent fun of form?
I have a theory on Bravo, and I might be wrong but I might be right: he's trying too hard to show he's good with his feet. Everytime he gets a pass, he takes an extra touch, does a little style move and passes the ball to the next guy. That's not necessary, and it slows down the attacks on a part of the buildup play that needs to be quick. Then, when it comes to making saves, he just can't. It's clearly mental, and he needs the bench a little bit to regain his spot with good performances in training. Caballero is just the solid dude who does his job and that's it. He's not the 11th footballer Pep wants in goal, but right now we need clean sheets and I'm more confident in Willy to provide them.
Building upon that, on a scale of 1-10, tell me how badly you want Joe Hart back between the pipes.
I watched the Everton match and was wondering if John Stones just forgot how to defend for two hours. Was that an anomaly or is there concern that City got worked on that transfer?
John Stones is not the problem. He's certainly not the next great defender we've been told he's going to be, but he's been pretty solid most of the time. It's the guys around him that don't help. Otamendi lunges into desperate challenges about 112 times a game, and Stones is left alone to be exposed. The fullbacks are very old and slow and bad and the central defenders have to do their job too, and Stones is exposed again. It's not a coincidence that Stones' best performances this season came with Vincent Kompany alongside him, which just happened three times but made clear that Stones can be a very competent CB with another very competent CB playing with him. Kinda like any Spurs defender playing alongside Toby Alderweireld: the other guy will be good because Toby will always be amazing. It's not a secret.
Do you think City's current run of a form is a blip or a red flag for the future?
This season is done in terms of Premier League success, but to me the future is bright because at least 40% of the squad will be changed next season, younger and better guys will replace the old guard that gave us great joy but is not able to contribute anymore, and Pep is too damn good of a coach, as he showed in the first ten games of the season.
There's just over half the season left to go. Where do you ultimately see City finishing?
There's a giant risk of not finishing in a Champions League place considering how the Top6 continues to beat everybody else and their place in the standings will be decided in these mini-league matchups like the one on Saturday. I'm not sure City can beat the other Top6 teams and that obviously means a danger of playing in the Europa League next season. Which would obviously seem like a disaster, but also a good chance to rebuild the squad without the pressure of the UCL. I'm obviously trying to look at the bright side here, otherwise I'll just bang my head against the wall until next season starts.
Pep seems to have dialed back the tactics quite a bit in recent weeks, whether it be because of a shift in ideas or the suspensions and injuries hindering the squad. Are you expecting a more conservative 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 this weekend and how does City lineup against Spurs?
He's been pretty basic lately, but since Everton killed him with a similar 3-4-2-1/3-5-2 lineup that Spurs have been using lately, I think he does try something different, but with the same players that he's used lately. If Kolarov starts, then all sorts of formations could be used. And Guardiola has surprised people in big games throughout his career, with formations and/or players in different positions, and my gut feeling is that will happen again.
My guess: Bravo (UGH) | Stones, Kompany, Kolarov | Navas, Zabaleta, Touré, Sterling | Silva, Agüero, De Bruyne.
It's a 3-4-3 that's easily a 4-1-4-1 with Zabaleta at RB, but having Kolarov gives Pep the option of playing with a back three. And Jesus Navas will almost certainly start to contain Danny Rose, either as a wingback or a right winger with big responsibilities.
Pretty bold and weird lineup, but that's the Big Game Pep that I've been following for almost a decade, so I might get this right.
And finally, how about a prediction?
I'm obviously hoping for a City win, but Spurs are too good right now. Won't be easy for y'all, but I'll go with a 3-2 Spurs win in a great game. More "Fraudiola" tweets, another week of hell. That's Man City for you!