This is Guardiola’s most challenging season as Manchester City manager

Sport

Never before have Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City had so few points after 17 games of a Premier League than they do right now. Saturday’s 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace means Pep Guardiola’s team have won just one of their six league games with last season’s Treble winners now five points off Arsenal’s place at the top of the table.

The problems are mounting up. Kevin de Bruyne has missed the majority of the season so far through injury while Erling Haaland is also currently on the sidelines. At the back, City have conceded no fewer than 20 goals in their last 17 matches and haven’t kept a clean sheet since early November.

This is turning into Guardiola’s most challenging season as Manchester City manager with some now viewing Arsenal and Liverpool as better-equipped to win the Premier League title. There’s no doubt City are struggling for form at this moment in time and it’s on Guardiola to come up with some answers before the entire campaign slips through his fingers.

In many ways, Manchester City are playing their usual brand of football. They dominated possession against Crystal Palace on Saturday and looked to be cruising at 2-0 up after 54 minutes. And yet, the wheels suddenly came off towards the end of the match just as they have many times in several recent games.

Manchester City are still top for average possession share in the Premier League this season and also rank top for the most shots on target per 90 minutes too. Guardiola’s principles as a coach are still evident in the way his team are playing, but opponents are getting better at exposing their vulnerabilities.

Palace sent a number of long balls into space behind the left and right-sided centre backs in the City defensive line with Michael Olise, Eberechi Eze and Jean-Philippe Mateta all dangerous on the break. Other opponents – see RB Leipzig, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa – have all done similar and enjoyed success in an attacking sense.

“It’s not bad luck, it’s deserved,” said Guardiola after the 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace which saw the visitors to the Etihad Stadium convert a stoppage time penalty kick. “We give away two points. When you give away this penalty, you deserve it. We are not able to close the games. That is the feeling.”

Guardiola’s approach demands a lot of Manchester City’s defenders. Nathan Ake and Josko Gvardiol, who both started against Crystal Palace, are required to cover a lot of ground when City’s backline becomes a back three in possession, and the latter in particular, is struggling to cope.

All four of City’s defeats in all competitions this season have come when Rodri has been missing, highlighting the importance of the Spanish midfielder. If they can keep Rodri fit and available, Manchester City will still take some stopping as they round into the new year, when they have a history of finding their best form in past seasons.

In past campaigns, Guardiola has used the first few months of matches to work out problems within his squad. Last season, he figured out how to harness Haaland after a challenging start to life in the Premier League for the Norwegian striker which saw him isolated in a number of matches.

It’s entirely possible history will repeat itself for Guardiola whose team are still very much competitive in the Premier League and Champions League this season. However, Manchester City are in worse shape now than they have been in previous campaigns, even if it’s difficult to pinpoint their issues. It’s not guaranteed Guardiola will come up with solutions.

Author: Mark Hayes