There was a two-month period at the start of the season when some observers were questioning whether Manchester City could go unbeaten throughout the entire Premier League season. Now the question is whether they can go unbeaten in the next fixture. City’s fall from grace has been dramatic and they sit seven points off leaders Chelsea. Here’s a look at the campaign so far and what City fans can expect in 2017.
The Pep Effect Takes Hold
Pep Guardiola is the most hyped manager in the game. And during a six-game winning streak at the start of the season, it appeared as though he had worked his spell and left the rest of the Premier League bedazzled by his glorious brand of passing football.
The zenith of Pep’s short City career to date was the first 45 minutes against Manchester United at Old Trafford in September. This was a calibre of football of which Premier League fans are rarely treated. It was the best we’ve seen from any side this season. The sheer dominance of possession, the wave upon wave of attack, and the end product of two goals were the reason City went to such great expense for Pep. Away to their biggest rivals and a team who had won their first three matches, City just swatted them aside.
In Tottenham Hotspur’s own stellar performance of the season, they eased to a 2-0 victory and, frankly, City have not looked the same since. Humbling defeats to Chelsea and Leicester City in recent times have had critics questioning Guardiola, particularly the way he sets out his team at the back.
The root cause of their problems is at the back, where too many mistakes are leading to opposition chances.
Aleksandar Kolarov has never been good enough defensively, and especially not in the centre. He’s not commanding, he’s not brave and is fortunate to still be at the club. John Stones is still learning the game and his errors have led to goals conceded at home to Southampton and away to Leicester City. Guardiola has immense faith in the youngster but is in desperate need of a commanding presence alongside him.
Add to this the uncertainty of goalkeeper Claudio Bravo (more on him below) and it’s a recipe for disaster. The perennially injured Vincent Kompany can no longer be trusted. Guardiola must look outside the squad for solutions.
Where’s Your Spine?
The City team which won the Premier League title in 2012 and 2014 had a spine running through the middle of the team. And it was frightening:
Joe Hart – Vincent Kompany – Yaya Toure – Sergio Aguero
The class of 2016/17 does not compare:
Claudio Bravo – Nicholas Otamendi – Fernandinho – Sergio Aguero
From Bravo’s howler in his debut against Manchester United, to his red card against Barcelona at Camp Nou, the Chilean has failed to convince anyone since his move from the Catalan club. He can play the ball out as well as any goalkeeper in the world – although this has led to problems this season – but fails to command his box, is unimposing on one-on-ones and lacks the quality of his counterparts at Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea. Guardiola was clearly intent on shipping out Hart because of his unease on the ball, but the feeling persists that he gave up on the two-time Premier League champion a little too quickly.
Fernandinho is a smooth operator in midfield but rarely dominates games as Yaya Toure did in his prime. The Ivorian has been reintroduced to the team after apologising to Guardiola for comments made by his agent, but is now past his best. It may be one for next summer, but Guardiola needs to look at acquiring a dominant midfield presence.
Josep Guardiola is an ideologue. Make no mistake. This is a fundamentalist coach who will persist with his own style, even during runs of form that would appear to dictate the need for change.
A recent sequence of just three wins in nine Premier League encounters may be a prompt for other managers to go more direct, more physical, but not Pep. When it was put to him by a Sky reporter after the 4-2 Leicester defeat that City had not won one tackle in 35 minutes, Guardiola’s response was: “I am not a coach for the tackles so I don’t train the tackles.”
This will have grated with some, but Guardiola won’t change. City should still compete for the title and have a kind draw against Monaco in the Champions League, but defensive reinforcements are needed. Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci and Aymeric Laporte of Athletic Bilbao are among those being linked for January.
Crunch Clash With Arsenal
This is a matchup between two of the Premier League’s great entertainers, and you can get news from City’s sponsor ahead of the game here. City will be without the suspended Sergio Aguero, while influential Arsenal centre-back Shkodran Mustafi will miss the game with a hamstring injury. The Gunners looked a little fragile in the 2-1 reverse to Everton without the German defender, and it will again be Gabriel Paulista who lines up alongside Laurent Koscielny at the Etihad Stadium.
Neither defence convinces at present (Arsenal are without a clean sheet in 11 games) so goals are on the cards. Last season it ended 2-2 and a similar scoreline should not be ruled out here.
The Gunners will be on their mettle knowing that back-to-back Premier League defeats could see them nine points behind Chelsea come Sunday night, so will be happy to travel back to London with a draw once again.