Premier League: What’s wrong with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City? Nothing, as seen in 3-1 victory over Leicester City

  • It has reached the stage, now, when it comes to gauging Pep Guardiola’s mood, his state of mind, where no detail can be overlooked.

  • And yet, to watch Guardiola’s team play Leicester City on Saturday, it was hard to believe that any of those doubts, any of those problems, had been real at all.

  • When Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester left, they were still ahead of City in the table. In every other respect, though, they had been put in their place.

Manchester: It has reached the stage, now, when it comes to gauging Pep Guardiola’s mood, his state of mind, where no detail can be overlooked.

 Premier League: What’s wrong with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City? Nothing, as seen in 3-1 victory over Leicester City

Manchester City's Gabriel Jesus celebrates after scoring his side's third goal against Leicester City. AP

It is not just Guardiola’s words — scouring the Manchester City manager’s public comments for signs of hidden meaning, clandestine messages — but examining his behavior, too. He is always agitated on the touchline, obviously, but is he now too agitated? Is it a different form of agitation? And what about the bags under his eyes: What does their precise shade tell us about the storm clouds gathering over Etihad Stadium?

The purpose of the search, of course, is to try to find the key to the mystery that has swirled around Guardiola’s City team ever since the second week of the Premier League season: Why has this record-breaking, history-making, title-retaining team felt in some way diminished these last few months?

What, precisely, has led a team that has recorded the two highest points totals in English history to lose four games before the halfway stage of this campaign? How has City, a team that swept the domestic board last year, managed to find itself staring up at Liverpool — who lead them by 11 points even after Saturday’s 3-1 win over second-place Leicester — as Jurgen Klopp’s team, now European and world champion, streaks into the distance?

There are some easy answers to those questions. City, as Guardiola has acknowledged privately, made a mistake in not replacing Vincent Kompany, their long-standing captain and most charismatic presence on the playing squad, when he departed last summer.

His absence has been keenly felt since injury deprived Guardiola of Aymeric Laporte, by some distance his best defender. The likes of David Silva and Sergio Aguero have missed tranches of the season, too. It is true that City — by some estimates the most expensive club team ever built — does not plead poverty of resources especially convincingly, but that does not, in the white heat of the season, make losing key players any less damaging.

There are some mitigating circumstances, too, most notably Liverpool’s searing pace: Guardiola is right to feel that the missteps his team has made have been amplified by the fact that their principle rival for the Premier League title has made, well, none. Liverpool have won 16 of their 17 games. Such form would cast almost any opponent into shade.

But that is not to say that the suspicion that City have been lacking something this year is entirely misplaced, that their injuries and their rival’s imperiousness explain everything. It does seem to have developed a vulnerability in the heart of their defense. They have pressed their opponents with a little less fervor, at times. They have endured afternoons in which the ideas have not flowed quite so easily.

Even Guardiola will, occasionally, through gritted teeth, hint that something has been missing, though he is yet to suggest to the public what it is or why he thinks that might be. He has always felt, he said, “like even when we lost points, we were there.” Equally, though, he believes that his team’s problems “started with the winning goal being ruled out against Tottenham,” he said, referencing a 2-2 draw in the second week of the season.

Perhaps it is hunger, or a lack of it; perhaps it is complacency, a tendency to “believe we are something we are not,” as Guardiola has referred to it. Perhaps it is weariness, after two years of relentless success and three years of Guardiola’s incessant demands. Perhaps opponents are starting to adapt to the way City plays, to find slightly more effective methods of disturbing their rhythm.

And yet, to watch Guardiola’s team play Leicester City on Saturday, it was hard to believe that any of those doubts, any of those problems, had been real at all.

Leicester arrived at the Etihad Stadium ahead of Manchester City in the table, hailed as one of the revelations of the season, a side full of courage and youth and pace and perfectly designed to exploit their host’s newfound weaknesses.

Jamie Vardy, in particular, seems to revel in facing Guardiola’s team, in stretching his legs into the wide open spaces that City’s adventurous defensive line leaves in their wake. That this was City’s first game since the departure of Mikel Arteta — Guardiola’s trusted assistant, a well-liked, sincerely respected member of staff — to become the manager of Arsenal seemed to confirm that this was Leicester’s chance to make a statement.

When Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester left, they were still ahead of City in the table. In every other respect, though, they had been put in their place. Reports of the demise of Manchester City’s aura are, clearly, exaggerated. For all the talk of flaws, for all the worries and weaknesses, for all the reading of the runes that Guardiola has been subjected to, Saturday was a reminder of just how potent City can be, that greatness does not just evaporate in the space of a few months.

At times, City were unplayable: Riyad Mahrez, dancing between Ben Chilwell and Caglar Soyuncu, offering both a bite at the ball, only to slip it away at the last moment, and teeing up Gabriel Jesus for a chance he missed; Kevin de Bruyne, the most complete attacking player in the Premier League, bursting past Soyuncu, leaving him sprawled on the ground, and providing the perfect cross — the sort of cross they might teach at school — so that Jesus could make amends.

There were countless other chances; in the last 20 minutes, Leicester could barely breathe as they tried to resist the City tide. Rodgers called his opponent “exceptional.”

“We did the most difficult thing in football,” Guardiola said. “We played simple.”

He had still been agitated on the touchline. He still had the bags under his eyes. He maybe does not look as energised as he might, though perhaps that is unavoidable. Maybe none of these signs mean anything. Maybe he is just consumed by his job. Maybe he needs a decent night’s sleep. Maybe it has been raining in Manchester since August.

But then there did seem to be a certain glee about him, a pride in his team’s performance, a pleasure in what he had seen. Maybe that is significant. Maybe he senses that something has changed; or, more accurately, that something has been rediscovered. Maybe he sees that there is a long way to go, and he will make the journey with one of the best teams England has ever seen. Maybe he senses a storm coming.

Rory Smith c.2019 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Dec 24, 2019 10:10:40 IST