Saturday 22 September 2018

Guardiola wary of another costly dose of winter Blues

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

James Ducker

Pep Guardiola had no sooner finished fielding questions on Friday about the prospect of his Manchester City team emulating Arsenal's "Invincibles" by going unbeaten this season than the manager was being asked whether they could follow in Manchester United's footsteps by winning the treble.

After 15 wins in 16 matches, during which time City have plundered 49 goals and been credited by some with elevating the game to heights seldom seen in England, expectations are mushrooming.

Arsenal visit the Etihad Stadium this afternoon with few giving Arsene Wenger's side much chance of halting City's 14-game winning streak. Insulating players from that sort of hype is not easy, but if Guardiola has been keen to guard against complacency, it would be little surprise if the Catalan has been busy reminding his squad about what happened in the previous two seasons after a largely rampant August, September and October.

On both occasions, City, as they are now, were sitting pretty at the top of the table going into the first Premier League game of November. Under Guardiola last term, City had won seven of 10 games and were averaging 2.3 points per match. It had been much the same the previous year in Manuel Pellegrini's final season in charge. City were averaging 2.27 points per game after eight wins in their opening 11 league fixtures.

And then the clocks went backwards and City went the same way on the pitch.

Last season, November, December and January yielded just 20 points from 12 games at an average of 1.66 points per match, a sharp decline that saw City drop from first to fifth in the table. The previous season, they mustered an average of just 1.58 points over that three-month period, slipped to second, and never reclaimed top spot, ultimately finishing a distant fourth.

So, can Guardiola ensure that City avoid a third consecutive winter of discontent? No one realistically expects them to maintain their current average of 2.8 points per game but preventing the sort of marked drop-off that derailed the previous two title campaigns will be foremost in Guardiola's mind this winter.

"I look at the winter months and it seems like an old cliché - can you go away to Stoke and all that sort of garbage - but there's a little bit more to it than that," Gary Neville, the former United defender and Sky Sports pundit, said this week. "City would probably have won the title in those two seasons if they'd maintained their winning level. But if they drop to that level in November, December and January again then they'll be in trouble.

"I don't care what anybody says, those are the toughest months to play football - the games, the weather, the injuries, the stockpile of fixtures, the Champions League, the Christmas - period. Can they get through to February, March and April when the weather gets better again and it's an easier time of the year to play football?"

So, are City better equipped this time around? Having already qualified for the Champions League knockout stages, Guardiola will, for a start, have the option of resting players for City's final two group games if he wishes. The loss of Sergio Aguero to injury and suspension for much of December last year hurt City because they had no obvious replacement, especially since new signing Gabriel Jesus was not available until the following month.

By contrast, they now have an abundance of riches in attack that should allow Guardiola to continue rotating and keep players fresh. If there is a concern, it is probably in central defence. Vincent Kompany has been sidelined since late August and an injury to John Stones or Nicolas Otamendi would leave City compromised at the back, although Guardiola could enter the transfer market for at least one new defender in January. Similarly, City can ill afford to lose right-back Kyle Walker, especially with left-back Benjamin Mendy already a long-term absentee. The cruciate ligament injury suffered by Ilkay Gundogan last December could not have been more poorly timed, but the midfielder is being eased back and will feel like a new signing. Yaya Toure has barely featured this term but his experience could be invaluable too.

Also goalkeeper Claudio Bravo's struggles to adapt to English football came to a head last winter; at one point in January he had conceded six goals from six shots faced. Ederson, City's new No 1, has seldom looked flustered.

Guardiola is taking nothing for granted, though. "Of course, we have done really well but I've seen it before," he said. "There are still a lot of things to come. If you want the title then you have to fight in November, in December, in January as well as February, March, April, May."

Telegraph

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