Expectation was high at the Etihad this summer ahead of the new season. After finishing eight then 15 points behind champions Chelsea and Leicester, in 2014/15 and 2015/16 respectively, in the last two seasons under the management of Manuel Pellegrini, Manchester City opted for change. Having brought in Pep Guardiola, one of the most successful managers of the modern era who is seen by many to have pioneered Barcelona’s now famous tika-tika style of play, City were installed as the pre-season title favourites by the bookmakers. With world-class stars such as Sergio Aguero, Vincent Kompany and Kevin De Bruyne, to name just a few, it was not hard to see why.
However, almost seven months and two transfer windows later, City have made almost no improvement despite having arguably the world’s greatest managers at the helm. Since November, City have won just four of their nine league matches to leave them trailing leaders Chelsea by a 12 points. Guardiola has already conceded that the gap is too great and it now seems as if the FA Cup may be the best chance the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss of claiming silverware on his debut season in England.
City’s backline has taken much of the blame for their failings and rightly so. On the face of it, the signing of Claudio Bravo from Barcelona for just over £15m seemed like a steal for a goalkeeper who had won five major honours at Barca, back-to-back Copa America titles with Chile as well as a few individual awards for his performances for both club and country. Bravo has since proved to be a spectacular error for City and the much cited statistic that Bravo has conceded 16 goals from his last 24 shots on target is damning. The argument that Bravo’s superior work with his feet, in comparison to Joe Hart who was loaned out to Torino for the season in August, seems redundant when stats such as these shown.
It is not just Bravo who has unimpressed for City. Nicolas Otamendi continues to look inadequate in his second season on English shores following his £30m move from Valencia last summer with his erratic and often over-aggressive defensive style. Another of Guardiola’s signings, John Stones, who made a £47.5m move from Everton in August, has also failed to impress despite his huge price tag. It would be wrong to assume that Stones should be the finished product at the age of just 22, but surely more had to be expected of him after failing to secure a first-choice place ahead of makeshift centre-back Aleksandr Kolarov. It also seems bizarre that Guardiola failed to bring in a third senior centre-back in the summer. Vincent Kompany’s horrific injury record is well documented and to rely on him being fit for an entire campaign would be more of an error rather than simple misfortune. Having let Martin Demichelis, Eliaquim Mangala and Jason Denayer leave during the summer, it seems strange that Guardiola would rely on just three senior centre-backs.
City have conceded 28 goals from 23 games thus far this season which is the highest amount of goals conceded in the top seven whilst bottom half sides Southampton (26) and Middlesbrough (25) have both conceded less goals. As Sir Alex Ferguson famously said, “attacks win you games, defences win you titles” and at the moment, City seem incapable of winning the league because of the fact that they are not good enough defensively.
It seems easy to forget that Guardiola has spent almost £150m in his first six months on players which thus far, have delivered very little. Aside from Bravo and Stones, City have spent £37m on German international winger Leroy Sane, £13m on forward Nolito from Celta Vigo and £27m on Brazilian teenager Gabriel Jesus. Obviously, similarly to Stones, Sane and Jesus are young players who could yet develop into world-class talents, but it seems remarkable that Guardiola would spend over £75m on players that are not even starters. Sane has started just five league matches, Nolito has fallen behind Raheem Sterling the pecking order on the right wing whilst Jesus spent the first half of this season with former club Palmeiras, such were his first-team chances at the Etihad. Ilkay Gundogan, a £20m purchase from Borussia Dortmund, looked as if he may have been the answer to City’s long-term central midfield problems, but unfortunately he tore his ligament in his right knee which meant he was ruled out for the season.
City’s problems defensively have stolen the headlines this season, but there have also been issues going forward. Upon first glance, 43 goals scored in 22 league games looks like a strong ratio but looking deep at the stats shows one key problem. City rely far too heavily on goals from their prolific world-class striker Sergio Aguero with little support coming from attacking midfielders Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Raheem Sterling. Aguero has scored 18 goals from just 24 games in all competitions but significant contributions from other players has been lacking. From the 82 games played by De Bruyne, Silva and Sterling in all competitions, just 14 goals have been scored, with an average of almost one goal in every six games from the trio which have cost City around £140m. Given that no other City player, bar Aguero, has scored more than six goals in all competitions, more consistent midfield scorers are a must for Guardiola’s side.
Manchester City have most certainly gone backwards under Pep Guardiola. At this same stage last season, City were second in the table, trailing leaders Leicester by just a point, they had a place in the League Cup final against Liverpool, and a Champions League round of 16 tie against Dynamo Kiev after topping a tough group consisting of Juventus, Sevilla and Borussia Monchengladbach. Compare that to the current campaign which sees City sit fifth in the table, a huge 12 points adrift of Chelsea, and out of the League Cup following their fourth round loss to Manchester United in October.
Pep Guardiola will certainly be given time and significant resources to turn around the current crisis at the Etihad, but it is now surely about time that the media and pundits actually try begin questioning his transfer dealings, defensive strategy and frequent tactical and personal changes.