Something is not quite right at City but it is temporary, not terminal. Defeat at Tottenham without scoring a goal happened regularly when they were still at their best in recent years, so what is wrong in this particular season?
Well, Gary Neville, not every City fans’ favourite uncle, suggested that, if in form, the following seven: Walker, Dias, Laporte, Ake, Rodri, De Bruyne and Gundogan would represent their strongest line-up with three of Mahrez, Silva, Alvarez, Haaland, Foden and Grealish up front. With the exception of the increasingly injury-prone Stones and Silva’s midfield skills, that is probably right.
So is it just loss of form to key players that’s to blame or, as many suggest, the failure to fully integrate Harland yet? Probably a bit of both. And added to that is the blunt truth that DeBruyne, Gundogan and Walker are all now in their thirties, and some would say past their very best, but still with lots to give – although not always ninety minutes, twice a week.
All great teams are constantly evolving and changing while staying at or near the top – and City are no exception. Transfer targets like Bellingham in particular, as well as Maddison, Chilwell and, hopefully, Saka, will ultimately refresh the squad and give it longevity.
But, for these last four months of the season, Pep’s best and only hand is the current squad. And he will expect no less from these players than to give their all to a fifth Premiership title in six seasons, a rare FA Cup win, and a first Champions League triumph. Publicly, he’ll deny all this but deep down we know that his determination, commitment and passion will expect no less.
So no crisis but a bump in the road that can be solved by finding a way to get Haaland playing more to his strengths: his breakneck speed through the channels and ability to out-muscle opponents, using his laser-like shooting ability to continue to break goalscoring records.
He represents one less player to create midfield overloads as the false number nine system that was so successful in recent seasons is ditched in favour of a fluid back-three system which can quickly regroup to a four when possession is lost, and that allows an extra midfielder to support a more conventional attack with Haaland playing an old fashioned centre-forward role with conventional, although inverted, wingers on either side of him. It’s just a question of time to get this right and I suspect it will happen before the next stage of the CL.
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