Manchester City mini-wobble offers worries for bigger tests to come

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola (Getty Images)

Manchester City are 14 points clear at the top. They are going to win the Premier League.

A team that has won 16 of their last 17 league games only need six wins from their remaining nine matches to be crowned champions for the third time in four years.

If Sunday’s derby defeat at the Etihad was a regrettable blip, this 5-2 victory over Southampton was their uncompromising response.

So that’s the league, then. But what about the rest?

That seemed to be one of the questions playing on Pep Guardiola’s mind on Wednesday night.

Guardiola had watched his side score five. Riyad Mahrez had toyed with a Southampton defence that looked at risk of suffering another blow-out. Kevin De Bruyne, finally, had added to his single league goal from open play this season.

Even so, the air of composure, authority and control that has defined City’s play over the last few months and powered their run to the top of the Premier League table eluded them at times.

It was not the first time that has happened recently, either.

There was none of the usual authority against West Ham at the end of last month, when a rotated line-up struggled for superiority against David Moyes’ top-four contenders. Guardiola has since admitted that City were lucky to win that day.

It escaped them a week ago against Wolverhampton Wanderers too. At least after Conor Coady’s equaliser they recovered, reasserted themselves and went on to claim all three points.

But in the derby, they failed to do that. A careless start gave Manchester United the lead after just 35 seconds, which suited Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s game plan perfectly. It was a lead they never relinquished.

It is three wins and a defeat in four games. If that’s a rough patch of form by City’s standards, they should really have nothing to worry about.

The problem is that they do have something to worry about: the thing that Guardiola worries about more than anything else.

The latter stages of the Champions League are just around the corner, with the return leg of City’s last-16 tie against Borussia Monchengladbach to be played in Budapest next week.

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The most striking aspect of the 2-0 first leg win at the Puskas Arena a fortnight ago was how they kept Gladbach at an arm’s length and played entirely on their own terms.

Yet in those four league games since – against West Ham, Wolves, United and Southampton, all at home – City have not had anything like the same level of command over proceedings.

Having conceded six goals in 19 games up to the Gladbach win, they have now allowed five in their last four. Gladbach had just three attempts on Ederson’s goal that night in Budapest. City’s four opponents since have averaged nine per-game.

In fact, Wednesday was the first time that City have conceded twice or more in consecutive games under Guardiola since the defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester City in December 2018 which threw their title defence into serious doubt.

And Guardiola knows that unless City regain their old air of control and defensive miserliness, it could cost them.

“What I am concerned about is in the game against West Ham we have a throw-in and it finishes with a goal,” he said in his post-match press conference on Wednesday evening. “The last game we have a throw-in and it finishes with a goal.”

Moments like Kyle Walker’s needless backheel into the feet of Jack Stephens, which led to the corner and the penalty for James Ward-Prowse’s equaliser, cannot happen.

“Today we have an incorrect action from Kyle – corner, penalty, goal. That is the truth,” Guardiola said. “It is a penalty like a penalty from Gabriel [Jesus, against United]. We have to improve or we cannot win knock-out competitions.”

Sometimes, a team like City can simply score their way out of such difficulties, as they eventually did on Wednesday night. Quality should always tell over the course of a 38-game season.

But in knock-out ties they need to be perfect, just in case luck is not on their side.

Guardiola was incensed by the decision not to award a penalty to his side for Alex McCarthy’s late challenge on Phil Foden when the score was still 1-1 on Wednesday night and still smoldering after the final whistle.

The decision was frustrating for Guardiola because on another night, in a knock-out format, such moments of contentious officiating could combine with his side’s momentary sloppiness to make a deadly concoction.

“We arrive in the important part of the season,” he later said of the decision. “In a knock-out game the influence is massive. We went out against Tottenham when [Fernando] Llorente scored with his hand. What happened happened and today it happened.”

This time, neither their sloppiness nor the officiating cost City. They should ease through to the Champions League quarter-finals next week whatever happens, given their healthy away goal lead.

Yet we are approaching that time of the season and Guardiola knows that his players can leave nothing to chance.

Read More

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