Pep Guardiola’s season, and that of the team he steers, has reached a pivotal moment.
The enormity of the challenge, the steady accumulation of problems to attend to and the gradual realisation of how deep they run have brought things to a head. Once again, City’s dirty washing is out and in clear view for everyone to see.
Never before has the Catalan coach been confronted with such a scenario. Breaking new geographical ground was an obvious first, as was pitting his wits against the power and glory of the Premier League, but now Guardiola faces a multipronged challenge that will test every grain of his undoubted talent: How to haul Manchester City towards a successful climax to 2016-17.
The first issue stems from the very core philosophy that has brought him this far: that of pass and move. City’s possession has been long and untroubled for much of the season. Playing around in defensive and midfield areas, time stands still and all is right with the world. The ball pings gently and efficiently from foot to foot and player to player as if threaded along a piece of fishing line. During that glorious 10-win streak at the beginning of the season, it appeared enough to completely transform City, despite the personnel he was forced to employ.
Now, though, when the ball is safely delivered to the edge of the penalty box, things begin to happen to it that upset the applecart.
Instead of forging a way through to goal and testing the opposition goalkeeper, the ball then begins a complex set of manoeuvres around the penalty box, from left to right and back again. At Goodison Park, as at many venues this campaign, it either got no further than that or the chance created was squandered. With David Silva and Raheem Sterling insisting that four touches are better than two, every attack petered gently out in a flurry of turns and flicks, eventually interrupted by the giant flying boot of a central defender, happy to wallop it into the stands.
Only against Everton, the home side were not content to smack it into the fabled Row Z. They took possession and worked the ball out swiftly and directly to fast raiding forwards Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas.
Everton got four goals past Claudio Bravo at Goodison Park last Sunday.
In the case of the first goal, within three touches the ball was sailing past Claudio Bravo. This was City’s direct reward for 34 minutes of steady and, it has to be said, impressive possession football. Impressive though it might have been, the net result was a 1-0 deficit and would eventually be a 4-0 slapping.
Guardiola is nothing if not stubborn, so it can be presumed that there will be more of the same from his side. For it to work, however, he needs to have the personnel and those players need to carry out his instructions. The former is clearly not the case and the latter is open to discussion.
In all of City’s best performances this season, the side have revealed a willingness to mix short and long passes, with Aleksandar Kolarov particularly involved in successfully delivered diagonal balls, missing out midfield to reach the right flank of the attack. When this does not happen, City have a tendency to stagnate in the final third, intent on passing the ball to death.
The so-called Barcelona style is supposedly married to a high-pressing game, which has also been conspicuous by its absence in many of City’s matches this season. Worse still, high-energy Tottenham, Liverpool, Leicester and now Everton have even managed to reverse the roles and force a high press upon City themselves with alarming results.
The emphasis on this style of play puts huge pressure on the back three or four and the defensive midfield axis. To put Pablo Zabaleta and Yaya Toure in these demanding positions against a side like Everton was a strange move. Neither having the necessary pace, nor the range of passing the job description demands, Gareth Barry and Tom Davies, a veteran and a raw youngster, were able to gain total dominance.
With a direct route to the defence and keeper, it is easy to guess where the spotlight then falls when City concede so needlessly: on a pair of ageing full-backs, a centre-half duo that do not complement each other and a goalkeeper whose shots-saved-to-faced ratio looks like something from a Bernard Quatermass experiment (55.4 percent). Here Guardiola’s problems mount up: a geriatric and underperforming defence, a goalkeeper under such severe pressure that his confidence must be on the wane and a squad littered with buys that have just not worked out.
Facing an early wave of euphoric expectation, the City coach will not have foreseen arriving in January with so many pressing issues. The real test of the manager (and the men wielding the wallet during the window) comes now.
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