When Manchester City “forgot to play” after taking an early lead, Pep Guardiola turned to the club’s default saviour: a 33-year-old often dismissed as yesterday’s man. It was touching gesture, but not one that suggests dramatic progress has been made in the blue half of Manchester.
Nobody could adequately explain why City struck with a scintillating Leroy Sané breakaway and then lost impetus for the rest of the half, allowing Arsenal to dominate play up to the interval.
Arsène Wenger’s Gunners, remember, where in the midst of an existential crisis, with confidence lower than a snake’s belly. The last kindness any visitor to this stadium was likely to show was to let them back into a game that might have developed into a hammering. But that was City’s gift to Wenger. Twice they allowed Arsenal to equalise. They paid for it, ultimately, with a result that leaves them 11 points off the top of the Premier League with nine games left.
Frankly, the City story has gone a bit flat, certainly from the fizzy early days when Guardiola’s appointment had a Grail-like drama. Capable of majestic passages of play – and thrilling, one-off wins – their overall trajectory is of a top-four side who are a surprisingly long way short of Chelsea and Spurs.
Asked whether City’s title chance had now expired, Guardiola gave an answer that is not worth repeating because it was impossible to understand what he meant. The simple answer is yes, because the gap is too large. In fourth place, they have a five-point cushion against Manchester United in fifth, though United have a game in hand.
When Manchester was being cast as the managerial Broadway of world football only last summer, nobody could have guessed Guardiola and Jose Mourinho would end up scrapping for fourth. The challenge, naturally, is to work out how much of City’s stagnation is down to Guardiola and to what extent responsibility rests with the players.
There is no need here to revisit old arguments about sweeper-keepers and culture shock for the Spaniard. On the specifics of this game, City left with only a point because they played in bursts and handed a fretful Arsenal team a chance to stabilise their league campaign.
Two selection calls caught the eye: the winger Jesús Navas at right-back, and the attack-minded Kevin De Bruyne in a holding midfield role alongside Fernandinho. Neither was calamitous, because Navas performed surprisingly well in his new defensive station and De Bruyne was moved back into a forward position – on the right – when Guardiola sent on Yaya Touré at half-time in place of Raheem Sterling for “tactical” reasons.
Of the Navas decision, Guardiola said: “I am so so happy to give him the chance to play because he did not play much in the last period. But he is one of the more fantastic guys I have ever met in my life in the training session, how people love him in the locker room. And the reason why, Bacary [Sagna] is injured and Zaba [Pablo Zabaleta] was, in the last three weeks, training just the last two days.
“We were much better when Yaya went in because he has this huge personality to play. I wanted more passes. We lose simple passes – and when this happens you cannot defend well. You need the quality of passes, and in this Yaya is a master.”
There was a time in Guardiola’s reign when Touré seemed to have been wiped from City’s history. A new midfield was being built around De Bruyne, David Silva and Ilkay Gündogan, whose long-term injury was a grievous blow.
Either Touré was written off too soon (there was also friction with the manager) or City remain worryingly dependent for control and composure on a player of guile but slowing feet.
Guardiola claimed Nacho Monreal confessed to a handball in the Arsenal penalty area in the dying minutes – so there was a hard-luck tale to take back to Manchester. Yet he was also unhappy with the way his players handled the early breakthrough by Sané, the team’s rising star. “We scored a goal and we forgot a little bit to play,” Guardiola said. “We are here to play with the ball and desire to take the ball and play. We forgot a little bit to do that, that’s why in the first half Arsenal was better. To handle the situation when we are 1-0 – we are not ready for that.”
Not ready to be in front? An odd statement. But the obvious subtext for many of Guardiola’s pronouncements these days is that his squad needs a shake. The full-backs are ageing, Nicolas Otamendi is a mishap waiting to happen and the switch to dazzling counter-attacks ushered in by Gabriel Jesus’s arrival was halted at inception by his injury. In the Champions League, City conceded six times over two legs to Monaco: a stain on their campaign.
So Guardiola sounds like a manager trying to find new diplomatic ways to say he lacks the equipment to win major prizes. An example from last week is him describing a top-four finish as “like winning a title.” There was, surely, an ironic tinge to this. He is taking what he can from a season of reduced expectations. In that world, Yaya Touré can still ride to the rescue.