Pep Guardiola has traded control for chaos and exposed Man City’s vulnerable underbelly

Pep Guardiola has traded control for chaos and exposed Man City's vulnerable underbelly
Pep Guardiola has issues to fix in Manchester City's defence - Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The image of Pep Guardiola flat on his back in the technical area is destined to be one of the great studies in sporting torment, the Premier League equivalent of Basil Fawlty thrashing a defenceless Mini with a tree branch. His hands to his temples, his smart black shoes pointing at the sky, he could not fathom how his Manchester City side had relinquished three winning positions in a single game. Neither could the 50,000 home fans here, many of whom stared at each other in disbelief, as if they had forgotten this club’s once-reliable habit of haplessness.

It is all relative, of course. Guardiola’s City have achieved a level of supremacy where the mere failure to win counts as a trauma. But it is not just their sequence of three consecutive draws that is ruffling this relentlessly perfectionist manager. It is the impression that they have traded control for a certain measure of chaos, with 10 goals shipped in their last four games. That level of vulnerability is beyond uncharacteristic by the treble winners’ standards. Frankly, it is unconscionable, with a Tottenham team shorn of 10 key players the latest to crack City’s code.

The serenity of champions-in-waiting has given way to a strange, skittish energy, with the finest team in Europe realising that they confront their toughest title fight in years. Even Erling Haaland’s Nordic composure has gone missing, with the striker ranting in referee Simon Hooper’s face at the failure to let Jack Grealish convert an injury-time one-on-one, and then tweeting “Wtf” as soon as he was reunited with his phone. For Guardiola, accustomed to keeping everything on the tightest leash, it is an unexpected headache. For anyone wanting City to be tested in the quest for a sixth championship in seven years, it is a tonic.

Guardiola had issued a warning, after careless displays against Chelsea and RB Leipzig, that City needed to return to the stability of old, to stop giving their opponents encouragement. On this evidence, his words have yet to be heeded, with his charges again unusually wasteful in pressing home their advantage. This is not simply an aesthetic judgment. The crumbling of defensive poise is backed up by the numbers: since a regulation win over Young Boys last month, they have conceded at a rate of 2.5 goals per game. For the first 18 games this campaign, it was 0.8.

While Guardiola was adamant his side had barely given Tottenham a look-in, this argument was of dubious statistical merit. Over the past month, City have conceded an average of 10 chances per game, a far cry from the 6.2 they managed before this winter wobble set in. Their record against their fellow Premier League aristocrats is far from pretty either. So far, in that crucial mini-competition among the big six, they have beaten only Manchester United, with Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea all grasping draws, and Arsenal a victory. Their insuperable aura is starting to slip.

In part, this is a product of Guardiola’s insistence on perpetual evolution. In his efforts to stay ahead of the chasing pack, he has significantly changed City’s formation of late, deploying Jeremy Doku and Phil Foden on the wings, while giving Julian Alvarez license to attack from midfield. At its best, it can be mesmeric, as the deft interplay between Alvarez and Foden proved for City’s second goal, a masterclass in surgical precision. The moment Ange Postecoglou saw Ben Davies neglect to hold the line to let Alvarez in, he turned away in horror, knowing what was coming next.

But when the system falters, City can look oddly destabilised. At 21, Doku is already a captivating talent. You only had to admire his shimmying first-half movement, feigning to go left before cutting right and cannoning a shot off the crossbar, to wonder at how he could yet flourish under Guardiola. But there is still a callowness to him, too, reflected in the one successful dribble he completed all game. With that rate of return, there will be limits to how much freedom Guardiola affords his Belgian prodigy.

Neutrals should perhaps be grateful for how much Guardiola is experimenting. He does not seem content these days with just passing the opposition to death. Instead, they are operating with roughly six per cent less possession but producing at least six per cent greater entertainment. With Grealish and Bernardo Silva on the flanks last season, there was an inevitability to watching City, with their exertion of control in every area of the pitch strangling the life out of anyone who dared take them on at their own game. Now they are exploring the virtues of a more direct approach, and the results can be exhilarating.

The problem is that City’s porousness is costing them. Once impregnable, they are showing lapses into uncertainty, especially against a team set up in such swashbuckling style as Postecoglou’s Tottenham. Guardiola, to his credit, did not curse any ill-fortune. “I learned from Johan Cruyff that bad luck doesn’t exist,” he said. “Who doesn’t make mistakes in football, or in our lives?” Still, there is a curious fragility about this version of City that he needs to remedy, and fast. Their capacity for killing games off is deserting them just when they need it most.

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