For a side with genuine hopes bordering on a sense of entitlement of retaining the Premier League title, Manchester City’s nine league defeats to date have highlighted the lack of attention given to the squad at a time when it hit its creative peak.
To remain at the top, continually repel a chasing pack and an ultimately resurgent Liverpool, the onus was on City to not assume that its recent record-breaking exploits would automatically carry the side to another Premier League title. The time to reboot is when it would seem to be the least necessary course of action but standing still, even when at the pinnacle of the English game does not guarantee success, and so it has been proven.
The warning signs from within the club and the red half of Merseyside were hardly inconspicuous. Juergen Klopp’s charges had been building up a head of steam even prior to last season’s tally of 97 points that would in almost any other season have been sufficient to secure the Premier League title by a country mile. Astute recruitment coupled with offloading fringe players for significant fees and doggedly insisting on a transfer figure for Philippe Coutinho which reflected his standing at Anfield and Barcelona’s desire to land the Brazilian enabled Klopp and Liverpool’s hierarchy to do some outstanding business, with few if any of the many recruitment mistakes of the past being repeated.
Despite a barely believable tally of nine league defeats it is not the defence at Eastlands that has been the problem. Rarely assailed by more than the odd goal City are simply losing games when in the majority of cases they have the overwhelming majority of possession. With though statistics being bracketed by lies and damned lies, 70% or more of possession does not automatically equate to a comprehensive victory if retaining the ball does not involve its decisive use.
The dichotomy of City’s form, goalscoring, and accusations of being flat track bullies justifiable points to a goal difference on a par with Liverpool, but not knowing which City will turn up was exemplified against Southampton in their most recent Premier League outing. Against a side who earlier this season shipped nine goals at home to Leicester City, Pep Guardiola’s side continually hammered at a door manfully guarded by the Saints’ defence. City inevitably reverted to type, in a style of play that could easily put six past another side on a different day. There was not anything as such wrong with City’s commitment or intensity, but rather than the team being a Jekyll and Hyde outfit their indifferent form relates less to a schizophrenic side untouchable one minute but not being able to hit a barn door the next, than one where a lack of a plan b against sides not willing to just roll over in the face of superior opponents becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My belief is that Pep Guardiola was wrong to let Kelechi Iheanacho leave for Leicester City. In the absence of superstar Sergio Aguero City can look toothless in attack, where Gabriel Jesus continues to struggle when not entering the fray as an impact substitute. City’s most recent Premier League outing once more highlighted what has for a while been plain to see, even during last season’s glorious fight to the finish. If a continuous stream of crosses from Kevin de Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, and Bernardo Silva are not pinpoint accurate they become everyday meat and drink for lofty, resolute defenders who tower over the likes of Gabriel Jesus. Should City continue to play under Guardiola in the manner to which we have become accustomed, their ambitions will continue to be stymied should a lack of height, variety, and personnel in the striker department not be addressed.
Financial Fair Play has undoubtedly clipped City’s wings as an image of a team of ringers bought by unlimited Petrodollars tallies unfavourably with Liverpool’s more holistic approach redolent of their established place at the pinnacle of the English game, and within the hearts and minds of football fans across the globe beguiled by the club’s stunning success in the 1980’s. City have become a club that perhaps many of its diehard ‘seen it all’ fans might not be comfortable with, but the excellent work done by its Abu Dhabi-based owners to regenerate a large swathe of east Manchester should not easily be forgotten.
A buy-back clause inserted within the deal to sell Iheanacho to Leicester would cost City twice the amount the Nigerian was sold for, but could represent a pragmatic alternative to the immensely costly signing of, for example, Kylian Mbappe or even the increasingly disgruntled Lionel Messi. City will though have to source a third striker AND soon undertake the unenviable task of replacing record goalscorer Aguero. In Phil Foden, the club has a readymade replacement for the soon to depart David Silva.
Liverpool have proven that being a northern-based club need not preclude it from securing some of the finest talent in world football. The Anfield club has always benefited from a certain cachet with which City cannot compete but in an age where money talks and wins the argument by shouting the loudest, it is ‘only’ Financial Fair Play restrictions and Guardiola’s rigid, if albeit at times electric, style of play that can hold City back.
There are few world class strikers in today’s game who are affordable, have the ability to walk into City’s side and immediately make the sort of difference expected at a club where the bar is set dizzyingly high. Without spending around £200 million on Mbappe or Spurs’ Harry Kane, or perhaps a third of that on Wolves’ Raul Jimenez, solutions to a problem which Guardiola seems reluctant to acknowledge may just be found from overcoming the embarrassment of jettisoning Iheanacho by re-recruiting the 23-year old.