By top six standards, never mind their own lofty ambition, Manchester City has had a poor start to their Premier League campaign.
In the Champions League and in the Carabao Cup, they’ve been perfect with five wins from five, although so far as the former goes, in Porto, Marseille and Olympiakos the opposition are all teams any aspiring European Champion would expect to defeat. The sadly unbalanced and boring competition that is now the UEFA Champions League ensures that.
When it comes to the domestic championship City, so far, have been found wanting. They’ve avoided defeat (won 3, drawn 2) in each of their games against teams from outside the top six, But against the best sides, Leicester City, Liverpool and Tottenham, they’ve garnered only one point... and two of those games were at the Etihad.
What if anything is going wrong for arguably the world’s most celebrated coach?
Pep Guardiola has held the whip hand anywhere he’s been coach. You get the firm impression he’ll only take a job if the odds are stacked in his favour. Read Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, where he’s just signed a new two-year contract.
But City apart, he’s stayed three years, then moved on. Maybe that trend should have been maintained in Manchester, although I believe he wants to win the Champions League with a team he’s built, rather than one inherited. That’s exactly what City, with their bottom-less pit of resources and scant regard for financial fair-play, offers him, probably more than any other club in world football at this current time.
It’s probably reasonable to suggest his brand of football has helped revolutionize the modern game. But there’s more than one way to win at football and despite Guardiola’s domestic successes in delivering 5 national championships and three national cup wins with Bayern Munich and Manchester City, 2020/21 will mark ten seasons since he last won the Champions League, should City not prevail.
That said, international club football is not the current concern. Guardiola has until mid-February before the laboriously easy Champions League group stages end and the real business of two-legged knock-out ties commence.
Already eight points adrift of Tottenham, City’s weekend conquerors and Liverpool, last season’s nemesis, there are signs that Guardiola needs to go back to the drawing board.
Has he been found out? Do his methods still work? Will he display the same stubbornness as a previous revolutionary Premier League manager in Arsene Wenger, who refused doggedly to compromise his philosophy of how the game should be played?
Given his tinkering in last season’s Champions League when City exited to Olympique Lyonnais, it suggests he’s somewhat more flexible than the Frenchman, but only because his sometimes fathomless Euro alterations led many to believe that Pep was actually second-guessing himself.
Guardiola seems not to be evolving, a criticism traditionally more often levelled at the man he lost to on Sunday and who leads him 4-3 in English football head to heads.
His City side still create chances and possess the ball of course, but other weaknesses undermine the positives. The lack of a consistent striker for one, undoubtedly they miss Aguero.
Fernandinho now 35, sees limited playing time, and City mainly in Rodri or Gundogan has not yet found the Brazilian’s holding midfield successor while those behind just don’t seem solid enough.
When City attack, get so far forward and loose the ball, if the opponent can break their press, all of a sudden Guardiola’s team is more vulnerable defensively than before. And if Pep cannot solve that with the players he has available he’ll buy to fix the problem. I doubt if resolution would ever involve a change in strategy or tactics.
But another aspect which may be affecting his players is the sheer intensity with which the Catalan operates. You don’t simply have to be playing well to remain in his teams, you have to be over-performing. His attention to detail is so great, you can be winning 3-0 and pulverizing the opposition, yet he’ll pull a player over and highlight some minor issue because it’s not perfect.
We saw it with Raheem Sterling in the 2019 FA Cup final when City pummelled Watford. Sterling was having a field day, yet Guardiola still felt it necessary to take the player aside and make a point around some minor adjustment or other.
The game of football is incredibly physically and mentally demanding these days, one can only imagine playing for Pep, forever seeking perfection, to be mentally draining.
Is this why Pep’s cycles at his two previous clubs lasted precisely, three seasons? Did he realize the concentrated influence he brought to bear could not be tolerated 100% by a squad of top players for a longer time period?
Pep clearly has an ego. He likes to be in control. But he’s going through an uncertain time and appears to be seeking answers from within himself. He’s heard the criticism and may be compounding his and City’s problems by resisting too many changes in the interests of avoiding accusations of second-guessing himself. Put simply Guardiola doesn’t wish to show people that the deep-thinker is perhaps over-thinking things.
On the flip side, there’s a long way to go, football’s crammed schedule is unprecedented and frankly ridiculous. The league, all the cups, Europe, international breaks. No-one could be ridiculed for arguing it’s all too much.
Perhaps we read too deeply into City’s latest defeat. After all Guardiola was forced to begin with Aguero and Sterling on the bench, both players he’d have preferred start the match.
Maybe it was just a poor performance against a Jose Mourinho master-class; Kane and Son rampant in attack and Tottenham very solid behind.
There are too many exceptional players at City to count them out at this stage and you feel Jurgen Klopp could still be right when claiming City to be his own team’s main title challengers in 2020/21.
No-one will know better than Guardiola that he needs to affect change however. His team are not close to the level of their all-conquering (although not in Europe) 2018/19 season. He’s already spent a lot of money, but won’t hesitate to spend more if he doesn’t get the perfection demanded from his players.
Guardiola has clearly worked out a plan over the next two years, one the owners are backing financially, otherwise why sign on the dotted line? Guaranteed, that plan comes with a list of players, the ones Pep sees as perfect to fit into his blue-print. Messi could be one, but at 33, I think probably not.
Should he regain former glories, it will represent not only a period spent at one club longer than at his previous two combined, but the first time he has truly rebuilt one of his own squads successfully. Until now it’s not been the Guardiola forte, always disappearing before having to contemplate such a scenario.
Can he do it? Can the remaining players respond? The only definite is that money will be no object.
Right now, before he gets City back on the rails domestically at least, he needs his big dressing-room characters to step up.
The question is, will they?