To suggest in early December of Manchester City’s post-treble season that Pep Guardiola is unsure which midfielders to select seems counterintuitive. For the uber-propagator of the pass-and-move masters to reach this juncture is as quaint as it is material to a current run of four successive Premier League games without victory – and three successive losses in domestic matches earlier in the campaign.
John Stones, Rico Lewis, Kalvin Phillips, Bernardo Silva, Manuel Akanji, Matheus Nunes and Mateo Kovacic have been tried in central berths as Guardiola fiddles to find the winning blend. Recent injuries (to Kovacic and Nunes) may be a factor but considering the depth of his resources the manager has failed. In the draws with Chelsea (4-4), Liverpool (1-1) and Tottenham (3-3) and Wednesday’s 1-0 loss at Aston Villa, the Guardiola battleplan of precision possession, geometric angles, composure, speed of thought and ruthlessness misfired.
In these games and at Villa on Wednesday there is a glaring common denominator: the absence of Rodri, who was suspended for all four. The Spaniard is Guardiola’s on-field embodiment, the quarterback-like No 6 whose vision allows him to see multiple pictures before executing the best play that can shift the opponent out of position and teammates into prime zones to attack.
Rodri’s absence has opened up the title race. City occupy the final guaranteed Champions League berth, six points behind Arsenal, and three ahead of the (apparently) perennially crisis-stricken Manchester United.
For Guardiola to be in a muddle about who to field centrally is odd considering his stellar midfield career and 15 years as a success-soaked coach predicated on the men who can “understand back and forward”, as he characterised them when the Bayern Munich manager.
But take his XI at Villa Park. This had Stones in the Rodri position, so the 29-year-old was not required to step forward from the back four in a hybrid role but to be the dedicated No 6 who should run the contest. Stones did not. And Guardiola’s selection also placed three career midfielders on the bench – Kovacic (a second game back after injury), Nunes (a first) and Phillips – all of whom are his signings. Kovacic and Nunes were recruited in the summer, one to replace the departed Ilkay Gündogan and the other, it seems, to replace Phillips, who, bought 12 months previously, is not trusted by the manager. A footballer Guardiola has relied on centrally did start the game but operated on the right: Silva.
Confused? A little. Leon Bailey’s winner did not derive from the usual way to breach the champions – a counterattack. Instead the Villa winger, under zero pressure, collected out wide inside City territory and turned and ran through the middle at the defence. Josko Gvardiol was left to try to stop him (he failed) where Rodri, with his positional sense, might usually have been to help. Stones was awol.
A similar befuddlement was found in September’s reverse at Wolves, where Nunes and Kovacic started in a two and were hooked on 45 and 65 minutes respectively, and at Arsenal the following week, when a trio of Silva, Kovacic and Lewis were in the lineup and Kovacic and Lewis were replaced midway through the second half. It all points to Guardiola having to get in Rodri’s ear about not being suspended again.
The dropping of six points in the meetings with Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham can be billed as less of a concern. Jürgen Klopp’s team are serious challengers so a 1-1 draw is hardly shameful, and Akanji, a relative novice in midfield, had to operate alongside Rodri against the London clubs owing to the injuries to Kovacic and Nunes and Phillips’s status as a Guardiola footballer non grata.
But this winless sequence of four league matches is the longest under Guardiola since March-April 2017 and has to be addressed. No one is suggesting City are not still serious contenders for a historic fourth successive championship. As Klopp says, writing off the genius 52-year-old and his all-conquering unit would be the biggest “joke” in the annals of football. Especially as Guardiola should soon have a refreshed, hungry Kevin De Bruyne back from injury.
Yet this is certainly an interesting moment for the man who when at Bayern said: “I would like to have a thousand midfield players in my team because I believe the midfield players are intelligent and understand the game.”
Guardiola also enjoys a seer-like comprehension of his players and each opponent. As he says: “It’s my job to find a way to come back from the situation because over many years together we were able to find a way to play games – sometimes good, sometimes not, but always we found a way to do it – and now we are struggling. We have to change the dynamic.”
Do not be surprised if City are soon again an irresistible force.