What's Eating Pep Guardiola And Manchester City In The Premier League?

The Cityzens find themselves 25 points behind leaders Liverpool
13:00, 09 Mar 2020

For the first time since 2015, Manchester United have won a derby game at Old Trafford. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men produced their third win over Manchester City in all competitions this season, and complete their first league double over the Blues in a decade, since the days of Sir Alex Ferguson.

It also meant Man City boss Pep Guardiola has now lost seven league games this season: not only the most in his four years in England but the most for the first time in his managerial career. The Spaniard, who has previously managed Barcelona and Bayern Munich, now finds his side, purchased for a combined total of €1.014bn (£908.5m) to become the most expensively assembled in football history, slumped 25 points behind league leaders Liverpool and conceding the bragging rights to one of their biggest occasions on the football calendar on the third occasion in 2019/20.

So what exactly is eating Pep and his team?

Where’s The Heart?

Vincent Kompany’s absence was never more palpable than it was at Old Trafford. The great Belgian defender left Manchester City at the end of last season not only as a serial winner and one of the best centre-backs in Premier League history but as a leader, perhaps the greatest and most important captain in the club’s history. Nobody has remotely been able to fill the skipper’s boots.

On the most recent occasion at the Theatre of Dreams only Fernandinho, a Cityzen since 2013, showed any guts or guile. The vice-captain, deputising for the benched David Silva, was aggressively directing his comrades to show some urgency and press making good on his earlier promise to ‘fight until the end’, was a direct contrast to teammate Ilkay Gundogan, who spent the last ten minutes slinking around.

Fernandinho will be 35 in May, and with David ‘El Mago’ Silva leaving at the end of the season and their 254 goals in 367 games all-time top scorer Sergio Aguero well on the wrong side of 30, Manchester City are in clear danger of becoming devoid of any discernible - and positive - personalities so fundamental for future success.

If the ban from European competition does come into effect, it would be easy to count on one hand the players who would continue to pledge allegiance, and those who do remain behind may not be the best quality to stir Cityzen souls. 

Injuries Take Their Toll

Aside from Kompany, if there was one person Manchester City sorely needed it was Kevin de Bruyne,  a player who has a legitimate claim on his day to be the best player in the Premier League. Unfortunately for Guardiola and City, a back injury meant the 28-year-old midfielder couldn’t make the short journey across town. After having had to cope without the brilliant Belgian for most of 2018/19, KDB has been absent from just two league games this season - both games in which Manchester City have ultimately lost (to Wolves in October, and most recently to Manchester United). 

It is defence however where injuries have really had an impact. As important as Virgil van Dijk is to Liverpool’s success, it’s increasingly evident that Aymeric Laporte is to Manchester City. After a brilliant first full season last year, a knee injury in the first month of the Premier League calendar and now a hamstring pull means Laporte has been reduced to just three league appearances since August. The EPL games he has featured? All clean sheets.

It’s not a complete excuse, however. Guardiola has spent over £260m on defenders alone during his time at the club. Squad depth shouldn’t be a concern, nor with that much expenditure should City fans be forced to watch at centre-back the out-of-position Fernandinho, and the lacklustre Nicholas Otamendi, a player who preceded Guardiola’s arrival as a £32million purchase, but has spent half a decade pretending to be a competent defender.

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Is It The End Of Pep’s Presumed Lifespan?

Like the contemporary he has been most often judged alongside, Jose Mourinho, it is easy to assume a trajectory and lifespan for Pep Guardiola’s tenure at a particular club. Now in his third first-team coaching role, Pep Guardiola has never spent more than four seasons at one club in his managerial career. In his final season with Barcelona in 2011/12, Guardiola won four trophies - the Copa del Rey, the UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, and the Supercopa de España - but missed out on the more prestigious La Liga title and Champions League before going on sabbatical. He turned up at Bayern Munich in the wake of their Treble success to continue their trend of Bundesliga titles, winning three consecutively.

In his four years at Manchester City, Guardiola has granted the club more success than they have ever achieved before. A further two Premier League titles, another FA Cup, a trio of League Cup victories, and a brace of Community Shields have been forthcoming. 

The post-match press conference, in which his team’s performance was dissected and analysed was understandably sombre. The manner in which he analysed his side’s defeat, however, didn’t scream a manager expunging doubt. After the most recent defeat to Manchester United, he disagreed with his player Bernardo Silva’s assessment that City’s performance "was not acceptable" - “I liked the way we played” - but it was far from convincing.

The language and statements provided were by-the-numbers: “In the first-half we needed to be a little bit more aggressive in the final third but in the second-half we did it a little bit better. In general we played well but congratulations United on the victory,” he told the media in a post match press conference.

No one should question Guardiola’s sustained striving for success - no one who has 28 pieces of silverware in their managerial career when they’re not yet 50 should come in for that line of questioning.

But if it is the end of the line for Pep as manager, speculation accentuated with that European ban looming and the worryingly lacklustre showing from the travelling support congregated in that small corner of Old Trafford, shouldn’t reflect Manchester City’s ambitions.

But Is It Actually All Bad?

Yes, Manchester is Red for now. Yes, they won’t be winning three Premier League titles in a row, but Manchester City have their last opportunity (for the next several seasons at least) to win that first, coveted Champions League trophy before their UEFA ban from European competition comes into effect. They’re having a good pop at it as well, producing a memorable win over Real Madrid - winners of four of the last six European Cups - at the Santiago Bernabeu in their first-leg of their Last 16 tie.

They have also already collected their third consecutive League Cup - and their fourth in five seasons - with victory over Aston Villa at Wembley earlier this month, and are still in the running for the FA Cup, a trophy they’re defending having won it as part of a treble in 2018/19.

Most teams would be happy with their current standing, but this Manchester City are not most teams. And Pep is not most mangers. Write him, and his team off, at your peril. Manchester is Red but for how long?