Pep Guardiola yet to realise that blaming the small details repeatedly is no coincidence, Man City have no midfield
After an FA Cup semi-final defeat that followed the pattern of so many games we’ve seen before from Manchester City this season, Pep Guardiola now faces up to a situation he’s never experienced before in his career: a trophyless campaign.
The frustrated Catalan coach remained resolute, sternly insisting “next season we will be stronger”, and stating he had “no regrets” about the 2-1 loss to Arsenal because his team put “everything” into a big performance. He was instead again lamenting the little “details”, but refused to blame the referee for what appeared a wrongly disallowed Sergio Aguero goal in the first half or the aggression that Arsenal displayed in a series of abrasive challenges that eventually saw David Silva go off injured.
Guardiola is right to an extent, as this was yet another game that could have gone drastically differently had even one of a number of individual moments gone differently. Had the linesman not ruled that Leroy Sane’s cross for Aguero had gone out, or one of Yaya Toure or Vincent Kompany hit the net rather than hitting the frame of the goal in the second half, or Fabian Delph scored that late chance, he could have been talking about a resilient win that marks a turning point.
"It’s football," Guardiola began. "I am not a guy who complains. Everybody plays football how he wants and Chelsea and Tottenham how they played yesterday was outstanding but one team had four shots on target and scored four goals, today we created more chances than Arsenal. We knew how good they are in front and on the counter attack and we didn’t create too much but it wasn’t easy when there are eight-10 players there but at the end we were… I don’t have regrets. We did everything. The way we want to try, I know it’s not easy, the build-up, to have the ball to provoke, the runs… in the first half we were there all the time.
“I know, it happened many times but it is what it is. We have to score and we didn’t. The details are so important. And that’s all.”
The question is that, if it keeps happening, can it really keep being put down to freak coincidence; as if it is only pure luck denying City? A pattern that pronounced usually isn't a coincidence.
Nor does it feel unconnected that that this team seems so unconnected on the pitch. City can often be excellent when attacking at pace, and there were some fine examples of that against Arsenal, but they more often seem bizarrely devoid of control; or - remarkably for the Catalan - devoid of a defined midfield. That is genuinely strange from a Guardiola team and, just as it is significant underperformance for the Catalan not to have at least challenged for the title or won a trophy in his first season, it feels even more concerning that they can still be so shapeless after eight months of work with him. Developing that kind of understanding and tactical shape is supposed to be what he's good. It raises a lot of questions.
Once Silva went off injured, it was even worse, although Guardiola said “I don’t want to talk about that, congratulations to Arsenal”.
He didn’t really want to talk about a trophyless season either. When it was put to him why that was the case, Guardiola gave a somewhat stern six-word response: “Next season we will be stronger.”
But how? He again came to the same conclusion.
“We need to score more goals and concede less chances when they come to our box, it’s difficult for us to score but we have to improve in that.
“We will improve in the Premier League and the players they will stay here, they will leave and come and we will create again, try to play one game and OK play a leading role in that game, no dwelling on the referee, no dwelling… to be proactive not reactive. Always I did in my life and always I will do in the rest of my life to be better and that is all. That is what I want to do.”
More than anything, though, it feels like he needs to fashion a side that can properly control a game. To have led against an Arsenal team that hadn’t come from behind to win to any of the big six since November 2012, and still lose, feels the greatest indictment of all.
Guardiola now has to make sure City retake control of the race for the top four, ahead of what is suddenly an even higher-pressure derby against Manchester United on Thursday, and that after a gruelling extra-time.
“It would have been better if we had won 4-0 in 90 minutes but that wasn’t possible, so it was extra-time. The performance today was outstanding and we will recover.
“[The message to the players is] to stand up, we have a big game on Thursday and today we played like we should do it and I have no regrets.”
City will now have to try and get David Silva fit, while Gabriel Jesus will also have tests ahead of that derby at the Etihad, for what could be a long-awaited return after over two months out.
Guardiola has a month to prevent this season from being a total failure, starting on Thursday. They'll need to do something we haven't seen enough of this season: show some ruthlessness; start scoring; start taking command.