As damming a defeat as it was in terms of any vague slither of belief they may have held that they could haul back Liverpool and somehow claw their way back to shaping some form of challenge to the Anfield club’s procession to the title; it was the way that Manchester City found a way to beat themselves at Tottenham last Sunday that provides the most savage indictment of where Guardiola and City now find themselves.
Such was a performance that saw them: miss a succession of clear cut chances, including Gundogan having a penalty saved by Lloris; reduced to ten men after Oleksandr Zinchenko was shown a second yellow card for what Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness, no stranger to ill-discipline himself of course, described as: “naive and stupid”; and then conceded two goals from a total of three Tottenham shots; that Guardiola found it necessary to lock his players in the dressing room for 45 minutes after the match to conduct a thorough post mortem of what had transpired out on the pitch, as well as, one presumes ,to pick over the bones of City’s campaign thus far.
A staggering lead of 22 points means that Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool stand just six wins away from the club’s first league title in three decades, assuming of course City are capable of winning every one of their remaining matches between now and the Reds’ inevitable coronation. While in the past couple of years bridging such a huge gap may have been vaguely contemplatable, the evidence of this season suggests that in all likelihood Liverpool will be picking up the trophy some time around mid-March, if not before.
So where has it all gone wrong for City? Just over a year ago they were being heralded as quite possibly the greatest team the Premier League has ever borne witness to; this season they seem ordinary, a shadow of their former selves who have lost as many games so far this season, six, as they did across 2017/18 and 2018/19 combined.
First of all, such is the level that City have sustained for two entire seasons that a drop-off was always likely, if not inevitable. Such is the intensity that Guardiola not only operates at himself but also demands of his players, that at some point there has to be a tailing off. As phenomenally successful as his world-renowned Barcelona team was, when he announced his intention to depart at the end of the 2011/12 season they were just about to be dethroned as La Liga champions by a certain Portuguese manager’s Real Madrid, and were showing very clear signs of becoming jaded and dropping below their incredible standards.
Equally, as has been touched upon on these pages before, (Football Nerd Weekly Ramblings: Liverpool march relentlessly on, but where does their dominance leave the rest of us?) recruitment / replacement has been a major issue for Guardiola going into this season. Vincent Kompany, captain, leader, talisman and arguably the most important player in Manchester City’s recent history was not replaced, the injury to Aymeric Laporte and the lack of trust/ quality in John Stones and Nicolás Otamendi has left them more vulnerable at the back and forced to move Fernandinho from his best position at the base of midfield into a makeshift yet preferred central defensive option.
David Silva, such a creative force for City over the last decade, has announced that he will be leaving the club at the end of the season. While even though Sergio Agüero continues to find the net with phenomenal regularity, he will turn 32 in June and surely cannot maintain his phenomenal output indefinitely. Gabriel Jesus, talented though he undoubtedly is, hasn’t yet shown he is quite the man to step into Agüero’s considerable boots.
While the title is gone for this season, supporters of City and Guardiola will tell you that there is still the Champions League to play for, the acquisition of which was behind the whole concerted effort that City made to bring Pep in in the first place, and that if he were to lead City to that and place them amongst the very elite of European football history, then things would be very much on track. However the obvious counter argument to that is what if he doesn’t?
When battle resumes on the European front City will face the not inconsiderable obstacle of Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid, thirteen times winners of the competition, three successively under the current incumbent of the Bernabeu hot seat. While Guardiola may well point to his own two victories as a coach, the last of those was at Wembley in 2011 where he had not inconsiderable talents of Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and co under his charge.
Since then he has demonstrated an alarming propensity to over-think crucial Champions League ties, to try and be too clever only for his carefully laid plans to come crashing down around him, eliminated unexpectedly by teams sticking to their guns and their approach. One need only recall that since leaving Barcelona Pep failed to take Bayern Munich, winners the season before his arrival, back to the Final, or the fact that so far with City he has failed to take them past the Quarter Final in each of his three attempts; to realise that glory in European football’s premier competition is far from a given.
Of course one of the main criticisms levelled at Guardiola is that he has inherited ready-made squads chock full of players of the very highest quality, that he has never had to build a squad let alone rebuild one. With his contract due to expire in the summer of 2021 it remains to be seen whether he will stick around to oversee the overhaul and reconstruction of the Manchester City squad that will inevitably be required?