LONDON — Less than 12 months ago, Manchester City were the best team in the Premier League era. They were a side that became the first to break the 100-point barrier in a season before continuing to claim a domestic treble of the next. Yet with praise comes a closer look, while says the defense of their title this season on Pep Guardiola’s super-team?
Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at Tottenham — both Spurs goals came after the 61st minute sending off city defender Oleksandr Zinchenko — was the sixth time Guardiola’s team had lost in the league this season. Although they have left City in second place, they are 22 points behind runaway leaders Liverpool, who could arrive at the Etihad Stadium on April 4 as champions if they win their six games by then.
If Guardiola and his players start this match by giving Liverpool a guard of honour, the pain of ceding their title so gently will really sink in. This is not a case of whether Liverpool dethrone City, but when, a fact Guardiola acknowledged after Sunday’s defeat.
“They [Liverpool] Are unstoppable, with a lot of points,” Guardiola said. “Of course, our goal for the competitions now is to qualify for the Champions League next season. But two seasons ago we finished with 100 points, 19 ahead of Man United and 20-something ahead of Liverpool. They were strong at the time too, so today is not a day to say what we are going to do.
“My team is good. I like the way we play, but we are far away, the distance is not good, so next season we have to do better. It will be fantastic to say we will be better next season, but I don’t know what will happen in our next game against West Ham.”
It is difficult to assess the state of the city under Guardiola at the moment. Their supporters will say they are still the second best team in England, preparing for a third consecutive Carabao Cup final and with hopes still alive in the FA Cup and Champions League. They have also been hit hard by injuries to key players, with Aymeric Laporte and Leroy Sane both absent for the majority, if not all, of the season so far. Raheem Sterling was added to the injury list on Sunday, limping while clutching his hamstring at Spurs, so their history of injury woes can continue.
It is fair to point out that Liverpool have been so remarkably consistent, winning 24 of 25 league games, that no team could possibly match. But it’s Manchester City and Guardiola, supposedly the best team and the best English football manager has ever seen, so why did they fail to give Liverpool a better run for their money? The mitigating factors mentioned above for City’s inability to defend their title are well known, but Jose Mourinho’s defeat to Spurs also highlighted the unease that has settled at the Etihad.
The missed opportunities – City had 18 chances compared to three from Tottenham – were the main reason for the defeat, with one of those misses coming from the penalty spot when Ilkay Gundogan’s effort was saved by Hugo Lloris.
“We created more chances and lost the game,” Guardiola said. “Sometimes it happens this season and we have to accept it.”
The failure to convert the chances is a key difference from last season, however, when City were ruthlessly effective in front of goal. Yes, they missed opportunities to score goals last year, but they converted chances when it mattered and didn’t let the opponents of the hook as often as they did this time.
After 25 games last season, they had scored only one more league goal than this time -66-65), but those numbers may be skewed by the 19 scored in three games against Watford, West Ham and Aston Villa. A more true indicator is that City are eight points worse off than they were a year ago and that is down to being unable to beat teams when they have the opportunity to do so.
Man City are also worse defensively. At that time last season, City had conceded 20 goals, but they shipped 29 after 25 games in the 2019-20 campaign. Laporte’s absence and failure to replace Vincent Kompany are at the heart of defensive weaknesses, but The loss of form and confidence of John Stones has also been a big problem and this has not been sufficiently addressed by Guardiola.
A year ago, City and Guardiola were on top of those details. Nothing was left to chance and they were ruthlessly effective in all departments. That diligence has since slipped, perhaps because Liverpool have crushed their minds or perhaps because it is virtually impossible, mentally and physically, to keep their foot on the pedal for three consecutive seasons.
Whatever the reasons, City is not the team they were last season or even 12 months ago.