Pep Guardiola’s rare transfer mistakes are biting as Manchester City miss key duo

Riyad Mahrez (left) and Ilkay Gundogan  - Pep Guardiola's rare transfer mistakes are biting as Manchester City miss key duo
Riyad Mahrez (left) and Ilkay Gundogan left Man City last summer after winning the Treble - Getty Images/Visionhaus

Manchester City are third in the Premier League, with Pep Guardiola conceding that they are no longer favourites for a fourth consecutive league title. They have scored fewer goals than Liverpool and conceded more than Arsenal. They have not won any of their four matches against their two title rivals, and just one of five home games against the traditional ‘big six’. Unlike in each of the last six seasons, City do not boast the league’s best expected goal difference, a distinction which belongs to Arsenal.

City’s best might still be the best – another Treble remains feasible after all – but they have not produced their best with the usual, unerring regularity. They pass like City and dominate like City but something has been missing, particularly at the sharp end of the pitch.

Some of this can be traced back to an uncharacteristic imprecision in the transfer market. Just as City’s clockwork football under Guardiola has approached perfection, so too has the club moved with slick efficiency when recruiting players. They had vast riches at their disposal, but City were forensic in their choice of targets and for a long while they barely missed a step.

That clarity of vision and enviable success rate has wavered ever so slightly. Guardiola has tried to refresh his central midfield options in each of the last two summers, windows that saw prime talent such as Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice move elsewhere.

Since 2022, City have spent £125 million on Kalvin Phillips, Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes. Phillips’s City spell has been a washout for club and player, and he is currently toiling on loan at West Ham United. Kovacic is a high-grade continuity player, but cannot replace the goalscoring offered by the departed Ilkay Gundogan. Nunes’s ball-carrying marks him out as a talent, but he does not look a clean stylistic fit for City and is yet to be trusted against elite opponents. City are still reliant on 32-year-old Kevin De Bruyne for goals and creativity from midfield.

Kevin De Bruyne - Pep Guardiola's rare transfer mistakes are biting as Manchester City miss key duo
Kevin De Bruyne has had an injury-hit season - Reuters/Lee Smith

On the wings, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Cole Palmer have all been sold since the summer of 2022. Jack Grealish was an important player during the Treble campaign, offering control around Erling Haaland, but whether he has proved value at £100 million is an open question. Jeremy Doku can be a match-winner but is erratic around the penalty area. It currently feels as if neither winger is the Goldilocks option Guardiola wants.

With the departures of Mahrez and Gundogan last summer, City lost two reliable sources of goal contributions, who have not been directly replaced. Mahrez provided 15 league goal contributions in each of City’s last three title-winning campaigns. Gundogan very nearly matched Mahrez, with 39 goal contributions across the last three league seasons. A goalscoring streak at the end of last season saw Gundogan score both goals in a 2-1 win over Leeds, the first two goals in a 3-0 win at Everton and both goals in the FA Cup final against Manchester United.

Kovacic, ostensibly Gundogan’s replacement, has zero goals and zero league assists. Doku has two league goals and five assists, but four of those came in one game against Bournemouth in November. De Bruyne has not been able to hit his usual numbers after missing half the season with a hamstring injury. Bernardo Silva’s six goals and four assists is a decent return, while Phil Foden has enjoyed his most impressive return to date with 11 goals and seven assists. Julian Alvarez has eight league goals and seven assists, but just two of those goals have come since the turn of the year. Both were against Burnley.

Where once City’s attack was a rotating cast, it is now defined by Haaland, the world’s foremost goalscorer. Yet for the first time since his first season at Borussia Dortmund in 2019-20, Haaland is underperforming his expected goals, scoring fewer goals than you would expect from the quality of chances he has received. He missed a period through injury, but is just halfway to last year’s extraordinary tally of 36 league goals. The Norwegian’s relative cold snap in front of goal could well have been the difference between home draws against Spurs, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, or victories.

Sterile possession has been a theme of City’s season

Balancing the team around Haaland, De Bruyne and Foden – City’s three most potent attackers – while retaining his desired control of both possession and opposition counter-attacks has also been a challenge for Guardiola. De Bruyne was hooked for Kovacic during a helter-skelter second-half at Anfield in an attempt to restore order.

Foden was shunted wide left to accommodate Kovacic against Arsenal, but was peripheral in a blunt City performance. Sterile possession has also been a theme of City’s season. Just 5.5 per cent of their completed passes have finished inside the opposition’s penalty area, compared to 7.2 per cent for Arsenal and 7.6 per cent for Liverpool.

City remain formidable, but have not quite leveraged their immense resources and position of dominance to the full. Their season could still end with open-top buses and champagne, but they will need to do it the hard way.