The Season So Far
Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City career started in terrifying fashion, with ten straight wins in all competitions, a flurry of goals, brilliant football and headlines declaring the arrival of a new superpower led by an all-conquering tactics philosopher king. Things went badly wrong following the commencement of Champions League, as a startling reality hit: playing a game every three days with a horrifically ageing and uneven squad almost always ends in disaster. The next few months saw things get singularly worse: results and morale collapsed and the famously precious Guardiola was frequently, to put it politely, rather tetchy.
Inevitably, Johnny Foreigner Guardiola received the majority of the criticism, with the famously vocal “Pep is a fraud!” brigade out in force for months at a time, desperate to let anyone with eyes and ears know that Pep only won things with Barcelona and Bayern Munich due to a devilish combination of illegal doping, colossal financial mismatches and match-fixing.
In fairness to Guardiola, he was dealt a bum hand with City’s squad, despite the amounts of money spent on it, and his players did him no favours at key moments: the stupidity of Sergio Agüero and Fernandinho – his best striker and his best central midfielder respectively – led to them each missing seven Premier League games due to suspensions.
City’s work in the transfer market has also looked very questionable: John Stones has been patchy at best, Claudio Bravo has been an unmitigated disaster and is now second-choice, and the famously injury prone İlkay Gündoğan has, surprisingly (!), succumbed to a season-ending injury. Their four senior full-backs have a combined age of 128, and the failure to consider replacing at least two of them now looks ridiculous.
Despite a recent upturn in form and league position, there’s no doubt that the City hierarchy weren’t envisaging being eleven points off the top of the table and out of the Champions League at the start of April. Things have to improve, and enormous player turnover is expected in the summer.
The Season Ahead
With fourth spot very much up for grabs, certain players’ confidence shot and the manager seemingly out of patience with others, the next six weeks could determine the course of the next few years for City. The campaign can conceivably be saved by the likes of Agüero, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Fernandinho playing to their full potential and not screwing anything up, but it seems unlikely that one or more of these will happen without the likes of Stones, Otamendi and the decrepit full-backs undoing all their good work.
Pep had better have an ace up his sleeve.
At the beginning of the season, Guardiola favoured his typical fluid 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 system with a defensive base of 3-2 in possession and extreme levels of positional interchange. Over the course of the season, however, as it has become increasingly clear that Man City’s old, tiring, frankly weird squad isn’t up to the demands of playing Guardiolaball in competitive contexts every three days, the Catalan tactics demigod/foreign fancy dan uberfraud (delete as appropriate according to your own personal bias) has basically abandoned his principles.
In the winter he played more of a conventional 4-2-3-1, with an orthodox back four, two holding midfielders, two wingers, a floating number ten and an out-and-out striker. The absolute adherence to dominating possession became less pronounced, the number of long balls increased, and the freneticism of City’s games increased proportionally, as their strangling control of matches has disappeared.
Guardiola couldn’t help himself, however, and the temptation to play 4-3-3 with De Bruyne and Silva in the Xavi and Iniesta roles was too great. He has been helped by the emergence of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané as effective and productive wingers in this system, and Sergio Agüero’s post-Gabriel Jesus form has been lethal. There’s still not quite the same unerring grasp of games as there was before, and the defence is an accident waiting to happen, but going forward they’re spectacular.
City’s main strength is still their awesome level of individual quality in attack. David Silva is still, on his day, the most devastating player in the Premier League; Sergio Agüero remains the division’s best finisher by a distance; Kevin De Bruyne is laughably productive in terms of chances created. On top of this, Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sané are among the most exciting young talents in Europe. Chelsea’s defence, particularly the right flank, is in for a huge test.
Logically, they have continued to enjoy the extreme levels of domination that their collective talent merits: Man City have averaged 60.4% possession this season, the league’s highest figure; they’ve taken 15.8 shots per game on average and faced 8.2; Agüero alone has taken 4.2 shots per game, the league’s second highest figure; they’ve hit the target 5.2 times per game while their own keeper has been worked 2.8 times per game; 37.1% of their shots on target have been goals, the league’s highest figure.
Nothing like close to their best, and with a hell of a way to go to meet Guardiola’s exacting standards, but this remains a team capable of blowing any other out of the water. The only question is whether they get to blow you out of the water before their defence hands you the game on a plate.
Of all the reasons for Guardiola’s much-publicised and greatly enjoyed malaise, the most obvious is that
he’s a f**king bald fraud his defence is so obviously unsuitable for the task at hand. Stones will be an excellent footballer one day but isn’t now, while Otamendi is extremely rash and questionable positionally. Kompany should probably retire, while every full-back is A) not good enough and B) totally past it. Between them, their goalkeepers have recorded the division’s third lowest save average: a mere 61%.
On top of that, central midfield is wide open. Fernandinho, the only player they have capable of commanding that zone, is now most commonly seen at right-back, while injury to Gündoğan and a lack of talent in the cases of Fernando and Fabian Delph mean City have literally no good players left to anchor the side, and Yaya Touré (now aged 87) is back getting regular minutes. The maverick Ivorian is a shadow of a shadow of a shadow of […] a shadow of a shadow of a shadow of his former self. An ancient Touré coupled with the gung-ho pairing of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva hardly screams ‘security’.
Also: Jesús Navas.
Guardiola seems to have lost the will to innovate and at times indeed the will to live, and at times appears to be merely sending City out in the shape that makes him most aesthetically pleased.
As for Chelsea, the absence of Victor Moses gives Antonio Conte a big headache, especially against an attacking outfit this good. One suspects he’ll choose a more defensive option than Pedro this time around, and put César Azpilicueta at wing-back, allowing Kurt Zouma to make a comeback in central defence.
After a total clusterfruitcake at the Bridge on Saturday, Chelsea badly need a result here. City’s draw at Arsenal on Sunday showed the good and the bad in their side, and we shouldn’t be surprised by a similarly open, uncontrolled, slightly bizarre contest here. Chelsea would arguably take a draw, and we shouldn’t be surprised if Conte closes the game down to get one. 1-1.