After collecting 198 points across two seasons it was easy for everyone to declare Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City has perhaps the greatest side in English Football history. Over those two seasons, Pep’s team had swept all before them, including going on winning runs as long as 18 games, scoring goal after goal and playing some of the most beautiful football the country had ever seen.
Sergio Aguero was reborn under his new manager, Raheem Sterling turned into a genuine superstar and Bernardo Silva shifted seamlessly into a box-to-box midfielder. All of this, on top of a squad that already contained the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Kyle Walker and Leroy Sane. The Citizens also introduced the idea of the sweeper-keeper to England, with Ederson known for being as good with his feet as with his hands, as well as being a goalkeeper who can begin attacks such is his level of comfort on the ball.
Whatever Pep revolutionised at Barcelona and then at Bayern Munich, he subsequently brought to England. Even in 2019, with Liverpool amassing a colossal 97 points, while being marshalled by Virgil van Dijk, Pep’s team somehow managed to hold off their onslaught and retain the Premier League in style and in grit. But that has all come crashing down this season, as a myriad of issues have plagued the club, leaving them in 3rd place and 14 points adrift of the top of the table at the time of writing. As it stands, Liverpool are about to walk to their first ever league trophy, as Guardiola’s new nemesis in Jurgen Klopp looks to be conquering England with even more dominance than Pep had just done. Where has it all gone wrong?
A Lack of Thought in the Transfer Market
No captain and club icon can safely say they left their club on a higher note than Vincent Kompany. Though he spent his final seasons in Manchester struggling with injury, Kompany managed to reinsert himself into the first team during the home stretch of the 2018-2019 season, forming a strong partnership with Aymeric Laporte. It was this period where City refused to lose, as they gained the necessary momentum to gear themselves into winning the league, but it wasn’t without trouble.
In the penultimate game of the season, City found themselves struggling to break down Leicester City. With less than half an hour remaining, up stepped Kompany, who uncharacteristically unleashed a rocket of a strike from 30 yards out, flying into the top corner. The stadium erupted, as it all but sealed the league for City. When they needed a moment of inspiration, their captain delivered a parting gift to the club he helped turn into a powerhouse.
Now, City need Kompany more than ever.
It was understandable letting him go due to his age and desire to return back to Belgium with Anderlecht, but it was not understandable to not even bother replacing him. Letting Kompany go without a replacement meant that City just had three recognised centre backs going into the season. Laporte himself tore his ACL at the beginning of the season, leaving them with just two. As though things couldn’t get any worse, John Stones suffered with injuries, forcing Fernandinho away from the midfield and out of position in the centre of defence, as City were desperate to play anybody there. Nicolas Otamendi was at one point the only true central defender that they had to offer, but he has shown his age in recent seasons and his rashness and inability to stay composed has left City exposed on more than one occasion. From being a rock-solid defensive unit, City now look frail and weak.
The biggest thing they probably miss from Kompany, however, is leadership. Kompany was a natural leader, a captain fantastic for the club, but City now have no leaders of that calibre, particularly in the backline. All that was needed was for the club to have purchased one or two centre backs to reinforce the defence, but instead they’ve allowed their backline to become the thinnest it’s ever been, and it’s perhaps the biggest reason they’ve lost the title.
They also still don’t have a consistent Left Back.
A Weak Midfield
Pep Guardiola sides are associated with strong midfields, with an emphasis on being able to press and win the ball, before retaining it and moving it around to create gaps and openings leading to chances.
This has all changed this season with City, as Pep’s midfield has been torn through like a hot knife through butter in several of City’s matches.
The above mentioning of Fernandinho being dragged out of position rings true in this regard, as he arguably had his best ever season in 2019. His presence in the base of midfield was reassuring, allowing everyone else to get forward and support the attack, knowing that the tough Brazilian was there to mop up whatever was necessary. Though the addition of Rodri in this position has been a good one, and he’ll no doubt make the position his own for years to come, he simply isn’t quite Fernandinho and cannot defend like him, leaving the midfield exploitable for teams that especially like to counter attack, which has been City’s undoing all season.
Kevin De Bruyne has been marvellous all season and is probably the favourite for Player of the Year, but he cannot do it all. The bulk of City’s midfield creativity has come from the Belgium, as David Silva ages out while the rest have simply not been up to scratch. And again, Pep’s insistence of driving his midfield forward has caused the team to be exposed, especially with his flying full backs, leaving a disintegrated defence on its own. A change has to be made in the engine room, if City hope to salvage anything from this season.
City’s losses have come with the simple tactical blueprint of: ‘Let them pass the ball around, then run them on the counterattack’. The other blueprint is to boss the team physically, with City not having the players to cope with speed and power, on top of being a rather short team. The lack of any real defenders has left them bereft of height and muscle, something their opponents now know all too well.
Their first loss against Norwich should’ve sent red flags across the club. The match finished 3-2 in favour of the canaries, with their 3 goals coming from a corner, counterattack and a defensive error. The corner exemplified City’s weakness at set pieces, the counter highlighted their defensive frailties as they were cut open in seconds for the goal, while the third goal was a mistake by Otamendi, who could not handle the forward press by Norwich. It was the first sign of things to come.
Against Wolverhampton at the Etihad, the team that are perfectly built to take on teams like City who want to hog possession, and hog it they did, finishing with a staggering 76% possession. It was all for nothing, as Adama Traore ruined the citizens as two late goals won Wolves the match. If Wolverhampton are built to counter City, the Traore is built to counter every one of their players, having the dangerous combination of speed, strength and pure, explosive power. Though City had missed some great chances throughout the game, they were playing with fire the whole match as Wolves themselves missed several chances on the break, most of them being off of errors from City leaving the team exposed. In the end, it was Traore who twice punished them for their lack of concentration and discipline. Wolves would then do one over City again at the Molineux, putting on another masterclass with Traore once again wreaking havoc and causing nightmares for the City defenders.
Though, it was perhaps against Man United where City were truly outclassed tactically. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was imperious in defence for the Red Devils, as he locked up Raheem Sterling on the left wing. On the opposite wing, Luke Shaw was having a tough time and isn’t quite the defender that his teammate is, having been left wanting on a few occasions. Rather than shift the focus of their attacks to this weaker left side for United, Guardiola insisted on forcing things down the left, where Wan-Bissaka gobbled up everything that came his way while being assisted by Daniel James tracking back from the right wing. This persistence in going down the one flank also allowed Marcus Rashford to sit up on the left wing of United and threaten on the counter, where he had his way with City’s defenders, giving them headaches all match. Had Guardiola recognised he could’ve overloaded Shaw’s side and subsequently force Rashford back, United would not have pulled off the shock victory that they did. It’s also telling that Kevin De Bruyne plays on the right side of centre midfield, meaning that Guardiola failed to see that his best player would have pulled the strings and had a better time of it.
It’s the age-old excuse, but you cannot fault City for particular injuries. Leroy Sane and Aymeric Laporte both tearing their ACLs at the start of the season has been unlucky and probably set the scene for the rest of the season for City. John Stones missed time with injury and hasn’t been the same since, alongside Zinchenko, David Silva, Sergio Aguero and the perpetually injured Benjamin Mendy. City have had to chop and change their side each week, with Guardiola probably not knowing what his side will look like each time they line up. Not many teams can say they’ve been as unlucky as City have with injuries, especially teams that have domestic and continental ambitions.
What you can say, is that the injuries have exposed City’s lack of depth, owing to their lack of forward thinking in the transfer market as aforementioned. They’re now sorely paying the price for it. It also has shown a once suspected, now almost confirmed, reluctance on playing youth. City have one of the best youth setups in the country, with the Guardiola style of play being drilled into these young players from the start. Phil Foden will forever remain the clearest and most frustrating example of Pep’s reluctance to blood the youth. With the plethora of injuries at the club and the importance of developing future stars, it makes any fan wonder why Foden can’t get a game. It’s especially curious when Foden was lauded as the best talent that Pep has ever worked with (apparently Leo Messi doesn’t exist).
If City are not careful, Foden could follow in Jadon Sancho’s footsteps and seek game time elsewhere. We all know how that has turned out.