Football: A City in need of rebuilding

Guardiola has to arrest domestic decline, reach new heights in Europe

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola speaking to his players during their English Premier League win over Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium in July. The Spaniard admits that he needs a new game plan to get his side scoring again. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola speaking to his players during their English Premier League win over Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium in July. The Spaniard admits that he needs a new game plan to get his side scoring again.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • Pep Guardiola has committed to Manchester City for the long term but for the first time in his managerial career, results may determine his future rather than his desire for a new challenge.

City's board showed how fully committed they remain to the Guardiola project by extending his contract to 2023 last week.

There is good reason for the club's faith. Guardiola is responsible for two of the three highest point tallies in Premier League history among six major trophies in his first four seasons in charge.

But a 2-0 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday that left City eight points off the top of the table continued the malaise that has set in since the beginning of last season.

Guardiola's men are languishing in 13th in the Premier League table, albeit with a game in hand. A return of 12 points from their opening eight games of the campaign is the lowest since 2008-2009.

City even have a negative goal difference after scoring just 10 times - and conceding 11 - in the league, their lowest at this stage of the season since 2006-07, when they finished 14th under Stuart Pearce. They have also scored 17 fewer after eight games than last season.

"The reality is we are struggling to score goals this season," admitted Guardiola. "Ten goals in eight games is not good enough."

The Champions League has normally been the nadir of his time in Manchester. In four seasons, he has not even been able to match City's best run in the competition - a trip to the semi-finals under Manuel Pellegrini in 2015-16.

So far this season, Europe has been a blessed relief as the English side have swept aside Porto, Marseille and Olympiakos to take a firm grip on Group B. Another victory at Olympiakos today will guarantee qualification for the last 16 for the eighth successive season.

But City have done little to suggest they have learnt from the mistakes that have repeatedly cost them in the knockout stages of the Champions League once the level of opposition improves.

The manner of defeat by Spurs was almost an exact replica of the 2-0 victory for Jose Mourinho's men when the sides last met in February.

  • MAN CITY UNDER PEP

  • PLAYED 246

    WON 181

    DRAWN 28

    LOST 37

    GOALS SCORED 607

    GOALS AGAINST 211

    GOAL DIFFERENCE 396

    TROPHIES 8

    WIN PERCENTAGE 73.57%

    GAMES PER TROPHY 30.75

Over the two matches at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium, the visitors had 41 attempts on goal without scoring, while Spurs netted with four of their five shots on target.

Lyon, Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham, Liverpool and Monaco have also cracked the City code in the Champions League by defending deep and counter-attacking at speed.

But Guardiola remains confident City will soon start scoring goals, even after he said he would not rush Sergio Aguero back into action.

The Argentinian striker, City's all-time top scorer with 373 goals, injured his hamstring at West Ham last month, only a week after making his first start of the season following knee surgery. He was an unused substitute in the loss to Spurs.

"We have scored in two seasons more than 100 goals. Eighty or 90 per cent of the players are the same, especially up front," Guardiola added.

What seems to have changed is what City do - or do not do - when they are without the ball. The intense press to get the ball back of the City sides that accumulated 198 Premier League points in two seasons between 2017 and 2019 has gone. Without it, even an incredibly expensive array of talented internationals are too easy to play through.

City's back four of Joao Cancelo, Aymeric Laporte, Ruben Dias and Kyle Walker plus goalkeeper Ederson cost a combined £265 million (S$474.1 million) and were still shredded by the guile of Harry Kane and the pace of Son Heung-min and Steven Bergwijn.

Unusually for one of football's greatest coaches, Guardiola now finds himself in the uncharted territory of having to rebuild a second great side at the same club.

The early signs have not been promising.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2020, with the headline 'A City in need of rebuilding'. Subscribe