Like almost every other Manchester City fan, I felt frustration last week as the final whistle blew on a night that had started off with so much promise and had ended with a feeling of unfulfillment and dissatisfaction. Are we a spoilt fanbase, going into large scale meltdowns online every single time we drop points, cursing the players and managers who took us to one of the best seasons in living memory?
Well, the answer is yes AND no. Pep Guardiola is a perfectionist of the highest order and he has repeatedly stressed this season the importance of avoiding complacency and arrogance. What was infuriating to him and to the fans after the defeat to Newcastle was that there was a feeling that the problem with the team was obvious and reclusive at the same time. Yes, it was obvious that City took their foot off the gas after the first goal. Yes, it was obvious that the yellow card to Kevin de Bruyne and his subsequent substitution in the second half might have led a drop in the energy in midfield and allowed Newcastle into the game. What is not obvious is that how has the same set of individuals, so willing to fight to the last-minute last season, with late and injury time goals scattered across many memorable moments, become so limp in the face of pressure and so incapable of finding points from losing positions. A similar drop in intensity following Koscielny’s equaliser against Arsenal at the Etihad showed that these problems will take some time to completely disappear. What was encouraging however, was the way the second goal was scored and the response from the team in the second half.
One of the reasons this problem has often been linked to is the lack of leaders for Manchester City on the pitch. Vincent Kompany is no doubt one of the very best modern-day captains and a fantastic dressing room presence and when he went off against Liverpool injured at the very end of that match, he took some of the ‘leave everything on the field’, ‘no-prisoners taken’ approach with him. Younger faces like Stones and Laporte need to learn more from him and develop these traits alongside their beautiful distribution and cross-field passes.
One more reason for City’s recent blip could be the man who gets the armband in Vinny’s absence, our very own little magician, David Silva. Pep admitted that he would play a lot less frequently this season and he has even retired from the national team as a result of his advancing years. However, the injury to Kevin De Bruyne has meant that he has had to play in almost every game he was fit for and this extra mileage has started to show in recent weeks. As much as we say that he has improved with age, he has not been at his best in the last month, being outshone by Bernardo and Gundogan, who deserve a runout in the team as much as he deserves a rest.
While Guardiola is a master tactician, he does like to meddle around with different formations and he knows the importance of playing these formations in matches against lesser-challenging opposition to test them out and make sure that players are comfortable with them. This tampering and adjustment make them less predictable and much tougher to defend against. With Benjamin Mendy again missing for a large part of the season and new signing Riyad Mahrez failing to deliver the level promised, Guardiola has had to stick to keeping Sane and Sterling wide on the left and right with a 3-man midfield behind them. Again, the lack of midfield strengthening meant that the same shape had to be kept the same as last year with no chance of trying out a double pivot as he did with Bayern Munich (in a 3-2-2-3 formation not too dissimilar to where Fernandinho and Gundogan played against Arsenal).
Of course, the biggest difference between this season and the last one has been the standout player of 2017/18, our very own Ginger Prince, Kevin De Bruyne. While Sterling was getting the late goals, it was often Kevin providing the assists, including the one for the Gabriel Jesus goal that earnt them the ‘Centurions’ tag. He has returned this month but has admitted that he is still not fully fit and a little off the pace. When he is on the pitch, the other players look to him for answers, and he often leads by example. Even against Arsenal, he wasn’t at his best, just like City. However, he ran himself into the ground and had to be substituted due to what looked like utter exhaustion. You could just not fault his effort, just like you couldn’t question the desire of City’s team. While Sergio Aguero is the talisman, De Bruyne is the beating heart of this side. Pairing him with the tireless Bernardo could give David Silva some extra rest while their work rate would also ease the pressure on Fernandinho in every match. There will be days this season when nothing will go right for City, even though it looks like nothing is wrong with the team or the tactics. On these days, the Belgian’s unique ability to create something out of nothing will be needed.
Here’s to hoping he can make the run to the end of this season as memorable as he often made the ends of matches last time out.
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