Manchester City are vulnerable in ways they haven’t been for years

<span>Composite: Guardian design</span>
Composite: Guardian design

In some ways it was a freak. Manchester City won the xG 2.6-0.5. The goal that made it 3-3 was only the second Tottenham’s Dejan Kulusevski has ever scored in his professional career with his head (in reality, his shoulder). City hit the woodwork twice. They might have nicked a very late winner had the referee, Simon Hooper, not blown for a foul on Erling Haaland when Jack Grealish was clean through on goal – a non‑advantage over which Pep Guardiola was commendably restrained in his post-match comments. It was 3-3 but it was a game City had dominated; there really should be nothing for the champions to worry about.

And yet, this keeps happening. City have drawn their last three Premier League games. The three equalisers they have conceded came after 95 minutes, after 80 minutes and after 90 minutes. Last Wednesday, they beat RB Leipzig 3-2, but only after going 2-0 down. So much for those who dismiss City’s evident brilliance as risk-free and bloodless.

Guardiola himself seemed relatively unconcerned. City had not been defensively right against Chelsea, he acknowledged, but his attitude seemed to be that this was just one of those things. His record against Spurs (in a variety of iterations) is inexplicably poor – just two wins in the last nine league meetings. City are only three points off the top. John Stones was on the bench again as he recovers from a muscle problem but will, presumably, be fit soon, allowing Guardiola to restore him to that deep‑lying midfield role that has proved so difficult to fill in his absence.

But Rodri will miss the trip to Aston Villa on Wednesday after collecting a fifth yellow card of the season on Sunday. City have lost the past four games he has missed and Villa, who are just a point behind City, have won six out of six at Villa Park in the league this season, scoring more home goals than any side in Europe’s top five leagues other than Bayern Munich.

The assumption continues to be that City will click in the spring, when Guardiola’s training schedule has them at their peak; the question is how big a handicap they will be fighting to overturn by then and the game at Villa looks like one that could give Arsenal (away at Luton) and Liverpool (away at Sheffield United) the opportunity to stretch their advantage.

City have conceded nine goals in their past four Premier League games, their worst run since 2016. This season as a whole, they have leaked 16 goals in 14 games, or 1.14 per game, compared to 0.87 across the whole of last season, 0.68 the season before and 0.84 in 2020-21. City have become a team who can be countered against, a problem they haven’t really faced consistently in the Premier League since Guardiola’s first season in charge.

There are obvious explanations: a drop in intensity after winning the treble was almost unavoidable, particularly given how long and fraught their pursuit of the Champions League had been; they are more direct now with Haaland, making it harder to get set to defend against counters; Jérémy Doku, brilliant dribbler though he is, does give the ball away more than is usual in a Guardiola side, exposing them to transitions; and Rúben Dias has experienced a dramatic loss of form.

But perhaps most interesting is the seeming dependency on Stones, who has been restricted this season to just 257 minutes of league action across four matches. Guardiola football, which is so based on his philosophy and which so prioritises the team, should in theory reduce the focus on individuals, yet Stones has emerged as vital because he is seemingly the only player in the squad capable of performing the hybrid central defensive-holding midfield role. Manuel Akanji has struggled with that function and it was notable on Sunday how, faced with three forwards who stayed high, Guardiola ended up pushing Akanji back into the defensive line.

That fits with one of the basic tenets of the Cruyffian theory that underlies Guardiola’s thinking, that a team should always have one more defender than the opposition has forwards, but by pulling Akanji deeper, Guardiola ended up making it easier for Spurs to play through midfield. Which is where Julián Álvarez presents a quandary. His quality is unquestionable, and he has four goals and five assists this season, but the use of him and Haaland weakens the midfield – which is why there was need for a defender to step up in the first place.

What’s fascinating is that this is the sort of game of positions and balance in which Guardiola usually excels. He almost certainly will find a solution sooner rather than later – and the imminent return of Stones and then, probably in late January, Kevin De Bruyne, will help. But for now City’s switch to a more direct style seems to have rendered them vulnerable in a way they haven’t been for years.

On this day

Some goals are special because of the power of the strike, some because of the deftness of the football, some because of the intricacy of the move that precedes them, and some because they are unlike anything you have seen before or since. Everybody knew Alessandro Del Piero was a great prospect. Juventus had signed him from Padova the previous summer, and he had scored a hat-trick against Parma on his full debut. But it was his goal against Fiorentina on 4 December 1994 that marked him out as truly special.

In part it was the context. Fiorentina had gone 2-0 up in the first half, but 74th- and 79th-minute goals from Gianluca Vialli levelled the scores. Then, with six minutes remaining, the left-back Alessandro Orlando launched a long ball into the box from just inside the Fiorentina half. As Del Piero ran on, the natural thing to do would have been to take the ball down and perhaps try to win a corner or penalty from one of the two Fiorentina defenders who were pursuing him. Instead, he hit a powerful flicked volley with the outside of his right foot that flashed past Francesco Toldo, his status as a genius confirmed.

This is an extract from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at the game in Europe and beyond. Subscribe for free here. Have a question for Jonathan? Email, and he’ll answer the best in a future edition