Getting positive results
The most obvious barometer of a manager’s success and the measure by which Pep Guardiola has always insisted he will be judged. The City chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, left Manuel Pellegrini, Guardiola’s predecessor who won the title in his debut season, in no doubt at the end of last season that finishing fourth in the Premier League, reaching the Champions League semi-finals, winning the League Cup and being knocked out in the FA Cup fifth round was the “bare minimum”. Guardiola has fallen well short of that bare minimum this term.
City’s 2-1 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Arsenal at Wembley on Sunday ended Guardiola’s last hope of silverware in a campaign in which his side were beaten in the Champions League round of 16 and League Cup fourth round and will drop out of the top four if they lose Thursday’s derby to Manchester United. Failure to qualify for the Champions League would be unthinkable. City have staked all their chips on Guardiola delivering so Al-Mubarak is likely to choose his words carefully in his post-season assessment but the pressure has been cranked up on the Catalan.
Decision making and transfers
City spent £172.8 million last summer on nine new players, only one of whom was a defender – John Stones – despite that being the area of the team requiring the most urgent surgery. Had he not been the man who delivered Guardiola, Txiki Begiristain, City’s flailing director of football, might be out of a job by now given how underwhelming his record in the transfer market has been. But in light of the power he wields, Guardiola could easily have insisted that signing two full-backs was a priority. He did not, City went into the season with four ageing full-backs whose best days are behind them and they have paid the price.
As a consequence, the pressure to deliver in those positions this summer as part of a widespread defensive overhaul is acute. Guardiola has also been haunted by the goalkeeping situation. In the rush to jettison Joe Hart, now on loan at Torino, it was essential the manager signed a viable replacement for the England No 1 but Claudio Bravo, a £13.75m recruit from Barcelona, has endured a calamitous debut campaign and lost his first-choice status to Willy Caballero. Guardiola is now back in the market for a new goalkeeper.
Gung-ho tactics and fielding players out of position
When City’s chief executive, Ferran Soriano, spoke last summer about Guardiola taking City to “the next level of tactical sophistication”, few could have imagined the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich making the sort of tactical blunders for which Pellegrini would have been panned. A common complaint about Pellegrini’s City in the Champions League was that they were too open and ripe for exploitation in midfield. But that is exactly how City’s midfield looked in the second leg of their round of 16 defeat by Monaco.
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Those who did not know better might have thought City were the ones chasing a two-goal deficit, not Monaco, with Fernandinho deployed as the only sitting midfielder in front of a suspect defence against one of Europe’s most feared attacks. City were 2-0 down inside half an hour. Other moves have also left fans perplexed. Imagine the reaction if Pellegrini had played Jesús Navas, a winger, at right back against Arsenal and Chelsea in the league, and then Arsenal again in a Cup semi-final? And the persistent changing at the back – there has been 11 different central defensive partnerships alone this season – has served only to heighten confusion and disorganisation in a defence already lacking leaders.
Lack of trust in youth
Guardiola has been touted as a champion of youth but the club’s academy graduates have been mostly overlooked this season, despite the continual shortcomings and failures of more senior players who have not warranted such indulgence. Pablo Maffeo impressed in the League Cup at Old Trafford but the Spain Under-19 right back made just three appearances before being shipped off on loan to Girona in Spain’s second division in January, a baffling move that is unlikely to do much to prepare him for the rigours of the Premier League.
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It is thought that there were concerns over Maffeo’s positioning, but when senior players such as Aleksandar Kolarov and Nicolas Otamendi have been frequently caught out of position, the argument falls down. There is never an ideal time to blood youngsters but if they are not given a chance they will never learn. England Under-19 centre-half Tosin Adarabioyo has also had to sit on the sidelines and could now leave when his contract expires in June and striker Kelechi Iheanacho has made just one start since Dec 10.
Style of play
There have been games when City have been brilliant to watch. The second half of their 3-1 victory at home to Barcelona in the Champions League was arguably the most accomplished display of the Sheikh Mansour era. Borussia Mönchengladbach were blown away at the Etihad Stadium in Sept, four days after City had excelled in the first half at Old Trafford during their 2-1 win against Manchester United in the Premier League. Going forward at least, City were mesmerising in the 5-3 victory over Monaco in the first leg of the Champions League.
But while the football from an attacking perspective has been better than Pellegrini’s final season in charge, it has paled by comparison to the Chilean’s debut campaign in 2013/14, when City scored 102 goals en route to winning the title at an average of 2.68 goals per game. City scored at least three goals in half of their 38 league matches that season and on 11 occasions plundered four or more. Tottenham were crushed 6-0 and 5-1, Arsenal 6-3, United 4-1 and 3-0. City put seven past Norwich. By contrast, City are averaging 1.96 goals per game this term and have scored at least three goals in nine matches with six still to play. On only four occasions have they scored four or more and, defensively, they are on course to ship more goals than last season in the league.
But at least things can get better next season ...
A season ending cruciate knee ligament injury to midfielder Ilkay Gundogan before Christmas was an unfortunate set-back, even if his chequered injury record hardly inspired confidence when he was signed last summer. Similarly, the loss of Gabriel Jesus with a broken metatarsal in February after a blistering five-game start to the young Brazil striker’s City career was a cruel blow.
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With Jesus, Leroy Sané, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero (if he stays) spearheading the attack, possibly with Alexis Sánchez or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to also call upon, and David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne providing the bullets, City could be electrifying going forward next season. Guardiola will be handed a huge war chest with which to reshape his squad, with up to seven new arrivals and around a dozen departures expected, and if a pedigree goalkeeper, two quality full-backs, a centre-half of the stature of Juventus’s Leonardo Bonucci and a powerful defensive midfielder can be enticed, City should have a much more robust look from front to back.