After 21 games in the league, Pep Guardiola's Man City side are in fifth, ten points off the top and two points of fourth spot. Here are four reasons for their struggles under the Spanish manager.
Jettisoning Joe Hart
There is a danger that Guardiola feels criticism of his decision to offload Joe Hart quicker than you could say “Head & Shoulders” is rooted in some sort of xenophobia, amplified by anger at one of England’s own being unceremoniously ousted. It’s much simpler than that: the guy he got to replace Hart seems far less cut out for the peculiarities of English football.
The theory goes that Guardiola wanted a goalkeeper who was much better with his feet than Hart, even if his desire to remove a big personality from the dressing room is often overlooked. But the irony is Claudio Bravo has yet to give the impression of being so superior to Hart with the ball at his feet to mask his shortcomings in other areas compared to the England No. 1, notably in terms of shot-stopping, dealing with aerial balls and communication.
A goalkeeper needs to use his hands as well as his feet and Bravo doesn’t make enough saves. Everton’s third and fourth goals in Sunday’s calamitous 4-0 defeat were both preventable from the Chilean’s point of view. He was slow to come out to challenge Tom Davies for the third and let the fourth from Ademola Lookman through his legs.
Getting it wrong in the transfer window
In Guardiola’s defence, this is by no means a problem entirely of his own making. Txiki Begiristain’s shortcomings in the transfer market pre-date Guardiola’s arrival and the reality is City’s director of football should have signed two new full-backs the summer before last when Manuel Pellegrini was still in charge.
But to allow last summer to pass without acquiring a new right back and left back was negligent, a failure of planning, and they are paying the price on the pitch. Bacary Sagna is 34 next month, Pablo Zabaleta 32, Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy are both 31.
Given their obvious and mounting deficiencies, why, in the circumstances, was the exciting, mobile young right back Pablo Maffeo allowed to join Girona on loan this month when this would be an ideal opportunity to blood him?
The full-back positions are not the only problem. Guardiola wanted two centre-halves in the summer but his other primary target after John Stones was Ayermic Laporte, a 22-year-old defender with Athletic Bilbao. Laporte must look at the persistent troubles befalling Stones and be thankful he did not make the switch.
Knowing, for some time now, that Vincent Kompany’s injury woes are not getting any better, why have the club not recruited an experienced leader of men who, in the Belgian’s familiar absence, can organise and marshal the back line?
Making the same mistakes again and again
It became an acute source of frustration for City supporters that Pellegrini would send out the same teams in the same system and see the same inadequacies rear their head again and again in the big games. How often, for example, were City overrun in midfield against better sides with Yaya Toure deployed as one of two supposedly deeper midfielders only for Fernandinho or Fernando to become isolated with Toure caught upfield?
City’s chief executive Ferran Soriano, said Guardiola would bring much greater “tactical sophistication” to City’s football but the same mistakes are being made with troubling regularity. Playing permanently on the front foot against weaker opposition is fine but time and again City have been vulnerable on the transition and incapable of stemming counter-attacks, with their problems compounded by passive defenders whose glaring lack of positional nous is exacerbated by the manager’s insistence of continually rotating his defensive personnel.
And when things start to go wrong, they seem to unravel very quickly. Barcelona scored twice in eight second half minutes against City at the Nou Camp, Chelsea twice in 10 minutes at the Etihad, Leicester three times in 17 minutes, Everton twice in 11 minutes. Are the players just too quick to down tools?
Similarly, why persist with Zabaleta as a central midfield or Kolarov as a centre-half when the overwhelming evidence is that neither are capable enough in such positions? Why is John Stones still electing to make passes that are not on?
City have already made four clear cut errors leading to goals in the league this season compared to five in the entirety of the previous campaign. Was it any surprise that City’s best performance of the season, in the second half of their 3-1 win at home to Barcelona, came when Guardiola sought to offer more protection to a brittle defence by playing more directly?
No one is talking about wholesale compromise of a philosophy but tweaks and adjustments to compensate for certain failings in a much more physical league where the ball is in the air far more than Guardiola encountered previously would appear a pre-requisite.
The Sergio Aguero conundrum and lack of cutting edge
Agüero was poor against Everton, just as he was a peripheral figure against other Merseyside opposition, Liverpool, on New Year’s Eve. Guardiola has said City cannot achieve what they want without Agüero but the manager has not always given the impression of being bowled over by the Argentina striker and their relationship remains a curious one.
Agüero is such a formidable striker that he will score goals whatever the climate and has 18 to his name in all competitions this season. But City appear to be playing to his strengths increasingly less while the influence of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, who are often coming so deep for the ball, has been waning. De Bruyne, troublingly, has not scored in the Premier League since September 17.
Guardiola has been talking consistently about City’s problems in the opposition box for much of the season but little is changing. They see a lot of the ball but too often it is a passive sort of possession and, on average, City are making no more passes in the opposition half per game than they were last term.
Perhaps Gabriel Jesus’s arrival will help to reinvigorate City’s attack, once his registration issues have been resolved. Kelechi Iheanacho drops much better than Aguero which, given the surfeit of playmakers already doing that is often not what the team requires, and Guardiola does appear ready to trust the Nigeria striker.
Liverpool may have left Old Trafford lamenting a missed opportunity after a 1-1 draw with Manchester United on Sunday, but Jurgen Klopp’s side are still topping one table that tends to be very significant at the end of a Premier League season.