Last week I asked the question “What has happened to Kyle Walker?”. This week I’m broadening the question out to “What has happened to Manchester City?”
While the Scousers revel in their delight at the Blues misfortune and having got to the season’s halfway point unscathed, City fans cannot understand how a side rampant in their goalscoring until coming up empty at Chelsea are suddenly finding life difficult.
City have slid further than most people on their first skiing holiday. Not only has the team slid to third in the table, but they have also slid backwards in the intensity levels of their football.
At Leicester yesterday, and for the third time in a week, City relinquished a winning position. The first time, in the Carabao Cup, the safety net of penalties got them through. In the next two, yes there might have been “worldy” goals in both matches, but once behind City never looked fully equipped to save themselves.
How is it when other teams get four shots, two are saved and two go in? Especially when City have 70% of the ball and who knows how many goal attempts that either come to nothing or don’t trouble the opposition goalkeeper?
Apart from Bernardo’s goal yesterday Schmeichel didn’t have a save to make and with the wealth of talent at Guardiola’s disposal this is disappointing.
The goals against resulted from space being found along City’s back line, Delph failing to sniff out danger and falling for a simple in-and-out routine at the back stick by Albrighton, not even a regular starter, for the first, and another half-hearted clearance from a set piece for the second which once again to an unmarked opponent, this time Ricardo for number two. It is not good enough if you want to retain the title, which is looking more and more unlikely as the festive season passes by.
Liverpool, by contrast, push on week-after-week doing what City did last season and the earlier part of this and now find themselves seven points ahead of the Blues, a lead which City will find difficult to remount this season. Yes, we will point to the failures of the Stretfords in 2012 and Brendan Rodgers’s Liverpool team in 2014, but this side from Scouseland is a different breed and it will take a monumental effort from City to get back on terms. Indeed, much more than simply beating them at the Etihad a week today.
Klopp has introduced a different tactical set-up this season which more or less sees the midfield three create a seven in defence and six in attack backdrop. While Pep has divvied up a couple of new dance moves, these essentially revolve around the Mendy, Silva, Sane axis and with two of them out sick recently, that avenue has found itself to be a cul-de-sac.
We can’t argue about creativity, it’s still there. We can argue that our strikers are not taking enough of their chances. When you take an early lead, the key is to get a second goal quickly. 2-0 is a long way back for any team. It is not to try to sit on 1-0, fall asleep and let the opponents equalise quickly as they have against Crystal Palace and Leicester.
If City defend like that against Liverpool, the title race will end on Thursday.
There is nobody in world football that can do what Fernandinho does for City and he is the greatest miss of all. He has a bloodhound’s nose for danger and starts attacking moves the minute he receives or wins the ball. Can Stones do that? Can Gundogan? Can Delph? We all know the answers. If Dinho is missing from the next two matches, I can see trouble ahead. Delph has ruled himself out of them by attracting a red card, which leaves Guardiola with a major selection dilemma. Can City risk Zinchenko at left back? Will Gundogan be effective as a defensive midfielder? I can see Danilo playing left back against Liverpool to try and counter that grass-muncher Salah’s inside moves.
But City need to get back on track and quickly. No sooner are the Christmas fixtures over then the domestic cups re-enter the frame and then the Champions League. Christmas is almost a relief period.
The Blues have the talent and ability to do this, but something looks amiss right now as Sterling is almost unable to get a foothold in the match and when the chances fall, they are not getting converted. City seem to want to walk the ball into the net every time. Other teams take different risks and seem to get goals. Admitted, only City seem to find almost the entire opposition team between them and the goal, but the Blues did have a formula for opening the drawbridge. They did it once and easily against Leicester, then sat back and lost the keys.
They need to find them and quickly.