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City's Roller has stalled and only a win in Europe can fix it

Emergence of the Red machine down motorway has caused the wheels to come off at the Etihad


Pep Guardiola. Photo: Getty Images

Pep Guardiola. Photo: Getty Images

Getty Images

Pep Guardiola. Photo: Getty Images

A limitation of 'stats' is that they tell you the 'what', but not always the 'why'. Anyone can count Manchester City's missed chances, but the tally cannot reveal the inner life of the player or the team.

Something is wrong with City. You hear it said all the time now. The discordance is sharpened by memories of their symphonic brilliance in two title-winning seasons. What happened to that? You see flashes of it, but not the old relentlessness that swept teams away. Pep Guardiola's side are like a group of mechanics gathered around a stalled Rolls-Royce with its bonnet up, not knowing what went wrong.

The answer is: them. They went wrong. You can hear it in everything Guardiola says and see it in the strained, clunky work of the players, who doubtless want success still, but no longer need it.

Their beautiful creation was finite in its shelf life. At the risk of ­straying into creativity in other fields, the ­hunger to be great is not infinite. And when top players see their team's ­appetite fading, an idea slipping into ­obsolescence, and an opponent 35 miles down the road moving the genre on, missed chances become a symptom, not a cause, of decline.


The statisticians crunch their ­numbers and serve up reverse ­explanations. Too much rotation. Too many passes around the opposition penalty box. Too few shots blocked. And so on, until a team are reduced to a broken machine that can be deconstructed and stared at by an engineer.

There is a warning there to ­Liverpool, who will see in City's dip how hard it is now to make a good idea or a great squad stretch across five years or a decade.

The stats are certainly revealing. City have lost six league games this season and Opta says Guardiola has never lost seven as a manager in 10 years in the dugout. It helps that West Ham United are their opponents this Sunday, because City have beaten them 23-3 over their past seven league meetings.

But you can quite imagine Guardiola posting that unprecedented seventh defeat between now and May. His team are playing without the old conviction. At a push, you could say they are going through the motions.

Not the motions of sumptuous ball rotation. This new pattern points to them being demoralised by seeing Liverpool go 16, 19 and now 22 points clear.

Any defending champions who saw their dominance broken by such ­outlandish numbers would be ­entitled to a little introspection. It took a 14-game winning run last season for City to reel in Liverpool. Twenty-four Liverpool wins from 25 games tells a story that City are ­powerless to disrupt.

For months now, they have watched the old assumptions about their brilliance and their dominance collapse. What does it do to world-class players to see a vastly superior operation spring up at the other end of a motorway? They fought it once, but the spirit has wilted at the thought of fighting it all over again.

We know Guardiola's style is uber-intense, physically and emotionally. We know it requires players to hound the ball, run like demons, never surrender possession, sign up in blood to a cause, go half-crazy with ambition. Nobody in modern management can frame winning as a compulsion, a duty, quite like the man who has now lapsed into a kind of veiled sarcasm when praising his side.

It seems almost trite to point out that this kind of management has a life cycle because it asks so much of the people charged with its delivery.

Guardiola's unexpectedly trenchant statement that he would "100 per cent" see out his contract next year suggests that either he is dissembling or accepts the need for a new plan.

His 76 team selection changes and tactical alterations are held against him. But he could be experimenting, as well as meting out punishments. It would be negligent to fall 22 points behind but leave everything as it is.

Guardiola's get-out is the Champions League, victory would allow him to say that winning the league was just "so last year". But if the players have lost faith - in each other, or in him - it will be a hard job in the next round beating Real Madrid, who lead La Liga, have won eight games in a row and are 21 games unbeaten.

In Kevin De Bruyne's face and play you can still see the old, imperious City. It also betrays irritation and ­bafflement at the fall in standards.

Given what we know about money and fame, there is the possibility that City are subconsciously cashing in on earlier triumphs. They would not be the first great side to go 5-10 per cent soft on the back of endless praise.

Liverpool's advantage is that they no longer need to play a manic pressing game to keep beating up every team in England. Jurgen Klopp is already trying to restrict the toll on his players and is more pragmatic, or less idealistic, than Guardiola. He has no need yet to worry about the descent on the other side of the mountain. But the risk will be there.

Watching City, Klopp will see what happens when the human factor kicks in and the craving dims.

© Daily Telegraph, London