Manchester City’s self-inflicted wobble has made the Premier League entertaining again
KING POWER STADIUM, LEICESTER — Football’s greatest asset is not the quality of the players. It is not the personality of the managers either, though both are great. Its capacity to bring people together is wonderful too, although it sounds a little too much like a line said smugly by a Fifa executive who 10 years later gets led out from a Swiss hotel underneath a white sheet.
No, football’s special power is the ability to pull the rug from under your feet. Being made to look stupid isn’t normally judged as a positive thing, but it works here. As soon as anything sold as an unpredictable becomes foreseeable, it loses its appeal. That’s why your Nan keeps going on about the latest cliffhangers in Albert Square and bemoaning her favourite character being killed off in Weatherfield. Mundanity is the death of entertainment.
Three weeks ago, Manchester City topped the Premier League and the only question was when they would extend their lead over Liverpool. City’s attack was scoring in threes and fours and they were conceding in noughts and noughts. They conceded three goals in their first 10 Premier League matches of 2018/19.
Crisis point coming?
But there is an unfamiliar air surrounding Manchester City: uncertainty. Pep Guardiola’s side, whose dominance has become normalised, are wobbling. They have failed to keep a clean sheet in any of their last nine matches, their longest run in all competitions for three years. It is not just Liverpool’s supreme form that has chipped away at City’s invincibility. Many of the wounds have been self-inflicted.
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A dip in results is a symptom of a disease that will have had Guardiola reaching for the medicine cabinet over Christmas. City have suffered from troubling lapses in intensity mid-game, both with and without the ball. They ceded the lead in this stadium a week ago and did the same to remarkable effect against Crystal Palace. Make that three from three on Boxing Day. Guardiola might be able to swallow being outplayed by a team at the top of their game. He will not accept setbacks caused by sloppiness and complacency.
This is where the nonsense notion that management of an elite club is easy is exposed. When Guardiola took over Manchester City, Harry Redknapp challenged him to manage Dagenham if he really wanted to prove himself – what rot. As the investment grows so too does expectation, and the margin for error is reduced. City arrived at the King Power having taken 60 points from the last 72 available, but defeat would have provoked written investigation. No manager is more than four matches from crisis point.
Creaky, inaccurate, rusty
One obvious excuse for the stumbles has been a significant injury list: Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne, Benjamin Mendy, David Silva and Fernandinho have all been absent. Boxing Day saw the first two on that list return to the starting XI, marking the first time that Aguero and De Bruyne have started together in the league since 4 March.
But forget that list: the defence that is suddenly creaking alarmingly, the passing in the final third is often infuriatingly inaccurate and Aguero looks remarkably rusty given the brevity of his absence. The striker poked one shot over the bar from four yards and snatched at another from the edge of the box but it was Aguero’s sluggish runs to meet pull-backs that killed City’s buzz. Earlier in the season Raheem Sterling was doing that job, but he remained out on the right against Leicester. Even De Bruyne was frustrated, three times overhitting set pieces. We have grown accustomed to better from them all.
No better soap opera
The hosts created four clear-cut chances in the first half alone but took only one, and then created one in the second half and took it. There was a period of 10 minutes before the break when Manchester City looked awfully like the Manuel Pellegrini version of this team that barely scraped fourth place before Guardiola joined. Full-back has been a problem position all season, with Fabian Delph filling in and Kyle Walker struggling badly for form. Walker was left on the bench by Guardiola, but Danilo was hardly any better as his deputy and Delph was sent off. Panic and ill-discipline has replaced peace and idyll in the defensive third.
City will come good again; they are too good not to. The manager speak cliche in such circumstances is to predict that “someone’s going to be on the end of a hiding soon”, and that speaks true. But the pertinent question is whether Guardiola’s team will be still in the title race by then. They’re not even in second place as 2018 closes out.
Those supporters in the away end, some of whom filed out before the final whistle, will wonder quite what has happened to their well-oiled machine. The rest of us sit back in wonder at football’s stupendous propensity to make our preconceptions look foolish. You will find no better soap opera on your television than this twisting, turning, unfathomable sport. Think you’ve got it nailed? Think on.
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