Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City press conferences have been a story within a story this season. As the club’s results, defence, disciplinary issues and off-field narratives have lurched and pitched all over the place, so have the manager’s moods. You know you are going to get a certain amount of nose-rubbing and ear-tugging each time, but what you are not guaranteed is a smile and a sunny response.
Not unless the subject is Leroy Sané, one of the few City positives that has stayed positive all season and a player whose potential is as much a source of delight to his manager as it clearly is to the club’s supporters.
The Germany winger scored his first goal for the club against Arsenal in December and since then has settled down to provide one of the main thrusts of City’s attack. “Everybody can notice his progress,” Guardiola says of the 21-year-old. “We are really pleased with his first season here and confident he can go on to achieve more.”
Sané is not really in the side as a goalscorer, though along with Raheem Sterling he could please his manager even more by taking his goal tally into double figures. Not necessarily against Arsenal, but between now and the end of the season Guardiola is looking for a greater return from his attacking players in order to translate winning positions into actual wins.
Confidence will eventually be boosted when Gabriel Jesus returns from injury, for it was in that short post-Christmas window when City had the Brazilian between Sané and Sterling up front that Guardiola seemed to have found the free-running fluidity he wanted to introduce.
Suddenly, even a finisher as reliable as Sergio Agüero was no longer sure of his place in the side, though City’s plans had to be put on hold when Jesus suffered a metatarsal injury at Bournemouth. Yet City cannot rely on Jesus this season. By way of a medical bulletin Guardiola now reports that the player is walking without crutches and might even be ready to return in the final matches, though such an appearance would surely be limited to a brief excursion from the substitutes’ bench in the closing stages of a game with not too much riding on it.
City are out of Europe and are not going to win the Premier League. Their Champions League status for next season is likely to be decided in forthcoming games such as Sunday afternoon’s at the Emirates or the one at Chelsea on Wednesday.
They have no pressing need to rush Jesus back and it might be foolish to do so. Much better, as Guardiola hinted, to let the player have as much time as he needs and give him the benefit of a proper pre-season, so as to be able to start his first full season in England fully fit and recovered. What City need to work on in the meantime, especially to have a chance of taking points from Arsenal and Chelsea, is their goalscoring.
Specifically the ratio of goals scored to chances created. Sterling and Sané have weighed in with nine and seven respectively this season, which is not bad, though Guardiola still frets that not enough opportunities are being converted. “We create but we don’t score,” he says. “We do that a lot. We have a lot of games where we have got to the byelines, and we have wingers in Leroy and Raheem who are good at that, but then we are unable to finish the chances.
“We were there but we were not able to score the goals. You could see it in the game against Monaco. We scored six goals, and so did they, but we created more chances. In the space of about 25 minutes, believe me, we created five clear, clear chances.
“In Europe, if you are not able to score those, you are out, out, out. I remember other occasions too. Against Chelsea [in the Premier League, in December] we were 1-0 up, and we had three or four opportunities in front of goal to make the game safe. We were not able to do that. Chelsea made some chances and took them.
“I do not like to say we were unlucky, it is more simple than that. We were not good enough. We were not good enough in the boxes and that’s what we have to improve. Anyone who makes mistakes can always learn to improve.”
If that sounds like Guardiola intends to step up the finishing drills at the training ground it is not quite what the manager has in mind. “I scored 11 goals in my playing career,” he says. “That’s one goal a year so I’m not the guy to show anyone how to improve in that area.
“When you buy quality you buy goals. We already have one unbelievable goalscorer in Sergio and we didn’t buy another because we knew we had Gabriel. We knew he would not arrive in August, but when he came in December he made a big impact then got injured after three weeks. We can think about what we should do in summer but until then we need goals from the whole squad.”
With Agüero’s future uncertain, it sounds as if City will be in the market for at least one top-class striker in the summer. “We have to improve for next year if we are to compete with the good teams in Europe,” Guardiola says.
Critics would point out that the defence needs strengthening as well. At a conservative estimate City could do with a convincing goalkeeper, a regular partner for John Stones in the centre of defence and a couple of full-backs. Guardiola does not deny any of that, but merely observes that the lack up goals up front puts extra pressure on a creaky defence. “We have all the creative players we need, but when we don’t score the goals we are not solid,” he says.
A team with a watertight defence can make the best of a misfiring front line and hang on to narrow margins of victory, but City have never shown much sign of being that team. While Guardiola’s natural instinct is to attack and try to outscore the opposition, until his side can become more clinical in front of goal opponents will always believe they are in with a chance.
Goals from midfield would be welcome, but if Agüero needs support in the box then Sané and Sterling are the players who would normally be in the most advanced positions to help out. Sterling agrees with his manager about what has been lacking of late.
“It has been frustrating to lose games that we could have won if we’d been a bit more clinical, a bit more cute with our play,” the England winger says. “We just have to make sure that we’re sharp enough over the next couple of weeks because it’s going to be a vital run-in.”