Poor recruitment and tactical changes have led to a disappointing start for Manchester City. Pep Guardiola's side already find themselves eight points adrift of Premier League leaders Liverpool, and suffered a shock 2-0 home defeat to a rejuvenated Wolves side on Sunday. But why has the start to this season been so mediocre?
No replacement bought for Kompany
Not bringing in a replacement for the influential departed captain, Vincent Kompany, would have been a risk even if Aymeric Laporte had remained fit.
But with Laporte out until March after knee surgery, City have not only lost their best defender and key ball player at the back, they are also now without the leadership the Frenchman and Kompany offered. City were opposed to meeting Leicester City’s £80 million valuation of Harry Maguire and were confident that, in Laporte, John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi, youngster Eric Garcia and midfielder, Fernandinho, they had enough cover in the position.
It felt like a misjudgment then – Stones and Otamendi’s problems with fitness and form predate this season – and it certainly looks like one now.
“Of course we are missing him [Laporte] but … I’m sure Pep [Guardiola], with his mentality and knowledge of the game, will manage to find a solution and he will get the best out of every player in every position,” Ederson, the City goalkeeper, said.
Tactical changes are stifling attacking play
Not to oversimplify what Guardiola does, but he has long considered attack to be the best form of defence yet, amid concerns about the team’s defensive shortcomings, he has been making certain changes further forward that, at times, have stifled the speed and fluency with which City attack.
Ilkay Gundogan played in a deeper midfield role, closer to the pivot Rodri, in the defeats by Norwich City and Wolverhampton, Wanderers, as well as the 3-1 win against Everton, when City were vulnerable defensively, and they lost a little spark going forward as a consequence.
With Gundogan in a largely central position against Wolves, and right-back Kyle Walker also inside to help compensate for the lack of pace at the back, Riyad Mahrez cut an isolated figure on the right and the team were quite static. City coped brilliantly with the loss of Kevin De Bruyne for a total of five months last term, but his absence against Wolves, and for all but the final 33 minutes against Norwich, proved costly. City’s right side is far more potent with the Belgian.
“We lost [against Wolves] because of our mistakes again,” Gundogan said. “It shows that we still have weak points, which we have to fix as soon as possible.”
The left-side conundrum
City were all set to move for Ben Chilwell, the Leicester left-back, but, having decided to give Benjamin Mendy another chance to prove his fitness, they shelved those plans and earmarked the money for a centre-half. They did not end up signing one of those, either, instead bringing in Joao Cancelo, a right-back, as a replacement for Danilo, and pursuing a cheap option at left-back by invoking a buy-back option for the inexperienced Angelino.
But Mendy’s fitness problems have resurfaced – he missed the Wolves match with a hamstring injury that led Guardiola to overlook Oleksandr Zinchenko and Angelino in favour of playing Cancelo at left-back – and the situation has been compounded by the loss of Leroy Sane until the new year with a ruptured cruciate.
It has robbed Guardiola of a fast, powerful wide player able to go outside, made City less multidimensional on the left and ended up placing a huge onus on Raheem Sterling to work wonders on that flank.
Foden deserves a run
Bernardo Silva’s form has dipped sharply since the furore around his controversial tweet about Mendy and, with De Bruyne missing against Wolves, it seemed an ideal opportunity to start or at least introduce Phil Foden.
Perhaps the England under-21 midfielder will feature more after the international break, but he is a lesser known entity to opponents and his vision, dynamism, turn of pace and energy from midfield would offer something different.
… but there is plenty still to be positive about
City may trail Liverpool by eight points, but they still have to play Jurgen Klopp’s side twice, and four of their next six matches before they go to Anfield on Nov 9 are at home. Liverpool have a tough run and face a hectic Christmas schedule, when the European champions must also factor in the Club World Cup and the fixture backlog that will create.
Laporte and Sane should also be back by the time Liverpool visit the Etihad in April and there are no guarantees all of Klopp’s key men will stay fit.
“If we want to speak about the title, we have to hope Liverpool will drop points,” Gundogan said. “It’s not that easy to take when you see your biggest rival win all the time.
“This time we have struggled quite a bit more and they have continued better and that’s a fact we want to change. We have definitely dropped too many points. If that stays the case in the next few weeks, the gap will be even bigger.”
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