The Season So Far
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City career started in terrifying fashion, with ten straight wins in all competitions, a flurry of goals, brilliant football and headlines declaring the arrival of a new superpower led by an all-conquering tactics philosopher king. Things went badly wrong following the commencement of Champions League, as the reality of playing a game every three days left a horrifically ageing City squad sapped of energy. The last few months have seen things get singularly worse: results and morale have collapsed and the famously precious Guardiola has often been, to put it politely, rather tetchy.
Guardiola has received the majority of the criticism, with the famously vocal “Pep is a fraud!” brigade out in force in recent weeks, desperate to let anyone with eyes and ears know that Pep only won things before due to a combination of illegal doping, colossal financial mismatches and match-fixing.
In fairness to Guardiola, he hasn’t been helped by the stupidity of Sergio Agüero and Fernandinho – his best striker and his best central midfielder respectively – who have each missed seven games due to suspension. City’s work in the transfer market also looks questionable: John Stones has been patchy at best, Claudio Bravo has been an unmitigated disaster and the famously injury prone İlkay Gündoğan has, surprisingly, succumbed to a season-ending injury. Their four full-backs have a combined age of 127, and the failure to consider replacing at least two of them now looks ridiculous.
Frankly, the wheels have come off and City look absolutely hopeless. Last weekend’s thumping at Everton – who themselves have looked hopeless for months – was a new low. Worryingly, there is no end to the misery in sight: their central midfield looks old and broken, their defence constantly exposed and unable to handle even slight pressure, while their goalkeeper is often the opposition’s key player.
The likes of Vincent Kompany, Pablo Zabaleta, Yaya Touré and David Silva have transformed Man City from also-rans-cum-occasional-punchlines into multiple trophy winners, but all must fear for their futures. In the name of progress, major surgery will be required in the summer.
The Season Ahead
With their league season in tatters, the players’ confidence absolutely shot and the manager seemingly out of patience, the next four months could seem like much more for City. The campaign can conceivably be saved by the returns of Agüero and Fernandinho, the successful integration of the explosive Gabriel Jesus and the returns to form of Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Raheem Sterling, but it seems unlikely that one or more of these will happen without Stones, Bravo and the decrepit full-backs throwing the game away.
A favourable Champions League draw could give City a helping hand into the Champions League quarter-finals, but Last 16 opponents Monaco carry a sting in the tail and it wouldn’t be a great surprise, though it would still be something of a shock, should Radamel Falcao and company further embarrass Guardiola and company.
At the beginning of the season, Guardiola favoured his typical fluid 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 system with a defensive base of 3-2 in possession and extreme levels of positional interchange. In recent weeks, however, as it has become increasingly clear that Man City’s old, tiring, lopsided squad isn’t up to the demands of playing Guardiolaball in competitive contexts every three days, the Catalan tactics demigod/foreign fancy dan uberfraud (delete as appropriate according to your own personal bias) has totally abandoned his principles.
In recent weeks he has reverted to a conventional 4-2-3-1, with an orthodox back four, two holding midfielders, two wingers, a floating number ten and an out-and-out striker. The absolute adherence to dominating possession has been less pronounced, the number of long balls has increased, and the freneticism of City’s games has increased as their strangling control of matches has disappeared.
Most bafflingly of all, the continued use of Pablo Zabaleta in some kind of pseudo-Philipp Lahm role as full-back-converted-holding-midfielder has undermined City’s attempts to establish themselves in games and handed the initiative to their opposition – problems exacerbated by the fact that the full-backs, Nicolas Otamendí, John Stones and Claudio Bravo can’t help but allow the opposition to put the ball in City’s net.
City’s main strength is still their awesome level of individual quality in attack. David Silva is, on his day, the most devastating player in the Premier League; Sergio Agüero remains the division’s best finisher by a distance; Kevin De Bruyne is laughably productive in terms of chances created. On top of this, Raheem Sterling, Kelechi Iheanacho and Leroy Sané are among the most exciting young talents in Europe. Spurs’ defence, without Jan Vertonghen, has a sizeable task on its hands.
Logically, they have continued to enjoy the extreme levels of domination that their collective talent merits: Man City have averaged 60.6% possession this season; they’ve taken 16.3 shots per game on average and faced 8.5; Agüero alone has taken 4.7 shots per game, the league’s highest figure; they’ve hit the target 5.4 times per game while their own keeper has been worked 3 times per game; 36.0% of their shots on target have been goals.
Nothing like close to their best, this remains a team capable of blowing any other out of the water.
Of all the reasons for Guardiola’s much-publicised and greatly enjoyed malaise, the most obvious is that
he’s a f**king fraud his defence is so obviously unsuitable for the task at hand. Stones will be an excellent footballer one day but isn’t now, while Otamendi is extremely rash at times. Kompany should probably retire, while Kolarov is A) not a centre-back, B) not good enough in his true position as a full-back and C) past it. Like Kolarov, other full-backs Zabaleta, Sagna and Clichy are all the wrong side of 30 and slowing down fast. Bravo, a highly decorated and more than capable goalkeeper in the past, has been unspeakably awful: City now have the third lowest save percentage in the Premier League and Bravo has the trust of precisely no-one.
On top of that, suspensions for Fernandinho, injury to Gündoğan and a lack of talent on Fernando’s part mean City have literally no good central midfielders and Yaya Touré (now aged 87) is back getting regular minutes, and the maverick Ivorian is a shadow of a shadow of a shadow of his former self. An ancient Touré and an out-of-position Zabaleta must be up there with the least imposing central-midfields in the history of supposedly elite teams.
Also: Jesús Navas.
Basically, all of a sudden Man City are unbelievably easy to play against.
Guardiola seems to have lost the will to innovate and indeed to live, and is merely sending City out in the shape that takes the least planning and explanation each week. That said, after losing to Liverpool and getting humiliated by Everton, one suspects the
shameless, foreign charlatan master tinkerer will go back to his free-jazz roots with his selection on Saturday.
We shouldn’t be surprised if two gung-ho pressing 3-4-2-1s go head-to-head and produce absolute mayhem and a ludicrous scoreline. Neither manager will play it safe, City can’t defend to save their lives and Spurs’ own backline will be weakened without Vertonghen. I’m saying City to nick it in a seven/nine/eleven/thirteen goal thriller.