All good teams are a reflection of their manager, but this Manchester City side are not – not just yet. Pep Guardiola is an intense driven winner but his team are not consistently showing those qualities, even as they enter the final straight of his first season in charge.
That is why here at the Emirates this afternoon City drew their third consecutive Premier League game, failing to take advantage of their obvious superiority or the two times they had the lead. That is why they failed to capitalise on Chelsea’s defeat to Crystal Palace, leaving their gap to the league leaders at 11 points. And that is why they are not seriously challenging for the title this season.
Even accounting for Saturday’s disaster, Chelsea bear the obvious imprint of their workaholic manager, playing Antonio Conte’s rigorous, muscular football. But this City team are not on Chelsea’s level, which is why they were beaten when the teams played at the Etihad in December. They meet again at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday but City will not get anything out of it if they play like this.
This game was perfectly set up for City to win. They faced an Arsenal team who had won two of their last six, and those against Sutton United and Lincoln City. Arsenal have been playing badly and find themselves in a state of political crisis with many of their fans furious about Arsene Wenger’s likely continued future as manager. If City had been able to exploit that discord they could have turned the atmosphere against Arsenal but that never happened.
Arsenal, in blunt terms, were there for the taking. City’s attacking football was good enough to take an early 1-0 lead and then to go 2-1 up just before half-time. They easily found space in the middle, David Silva was as influential as ever and Sergio Aguero found dangerous positions in the box. Laurent Koscielny went off at half-time, a departure that was deadly for Arsenal in both of their games against Bayern Munich recently, twice prompting a collapse to a 5-1 defeat.
But what this showed is that City are nowhere near the standards of the club that Guardiola left to join them.
Both goals that City conceded were poor and preventable. Theo Walcott stabbed his goal in after Gael Clichy managed to make two mistakes in the same move, first playing Walcott on-side and then losing the 50-50 challenge with him. The second was a free header for Shkodran Mustafi from a corner, taking advantage of lax marking in the box. It was a well-directed header but a better goalkeeper than Willy Caballero could have reached it as it went into the net.
Guardiola might say that with better defenders and a goalkeeper these mistakes would have been prevented. In a sense he is right, and City will spend millions of pounds this summer on defensive players who can stop this from happening in future. They wanted to do that last summer, targeting a whole new back four, but it did not turn out quite like that.
But there is a bigger problem here than just defensive positioning. City want to play proactive football, taking the initiative, controlling the game and not giving their opponents a sniff. Here they had Arsenal exactly where they wanted them but twice they allowed Arsenal back into it. It was a failure of intensity, to be unable to keep playing Guardiola football.
If City had played well here they would have continued to show confidence and that touch of football arrogance that Guardiola demands from his teams. But instead they dropped off, slackened their grip on the game, and it cost them.
That is what Guardiola meant when he said in his press conference that City “forgot to play”. They failed to show the personality that Guardiola demands of them. Of course, Guardiola said afterwards that the failure was his, that he needs to convince the players to play his way. He said the same thing after City went out of the Champions League in Monaco last month. But ultimately he knows that the ones who cannot do what he wants will be sold. The players know that too, and if they want to stay here next year they are not going the right way about it.