For only the second time in his managerial career, Pep Guardiola, the current Manchester City manager, has gone five games without a victory. In 2009, when he was the manager of Barcelona, Guardiola had gone five games without a win, but more importantly, the Catalan coach went on to win the treble (Copa del Rey, La Liga and the UEFA Champions League) with the Catalan giants at the end of the 2008-09 season.
Less than a month ago, Manchester City were on a 10-game winning run and looked irrepressible. They were scoring goals, playing highly attractive football and no team could stymie the Guardiola juggernaut.
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However, here we are, after the second international break of the 2016/17 season, and Manchester City seem to have run out of steam—going by their collective performance in the 1-1 home draw against Southampton, who became the second team after Ronald Koeman’s Everton, to hold City to a draw at the Etihad Stadium.
And, contrary to popular belief that Guardiola’s men have technical issues plaguing them, with playing out from the back being the most conspicuous theory, I believe Manchester City’s prevalent problems are more psychological and have very little relation to tactics or any technical element.
Even though it might have come at an inappropriate time for the Cityzens, who had been win-less in three games, the “Barcelona test” was always going to be a very good barometer of Manchester City’s Premier League title credentials and even their ability to go deep in the UEFA Champions League this season.
Luis Enrique’s side are the most comprehensive footballing unit presently and as a result, City can appraise whether they have made any progress since losing 3-1 on aggregate in the 2014-15 UEFA Champions League R-16 tie. Despite the Guardiola factor, City’s performance last Wednesday had to be special if they were to bring an end to Barcelona’s 20-game unbeaten run (18 wins and two draws) at the Camp Nou in the Champions League group stage.
They couldn’t… despite holding their own for almost two-thirds of last Wednesday’s game, which they eventually lost 4-0 after a calamitous last 30′.
Although the “MSN” are in a league of their own, when I reflected on Manchester City’s performance, they had made the same mistakes as in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 UEFA Champions League R-16 ties against an almost identical Barca: City finished last Wednesday’s game with 10 men, had conceded a penalty (the third in five clashes so far since 2013-14) and, for all the attacking dynamism they exuded, had failed to score, too.
And, though Claudio Bravo’s dismissal was eccentric and reinforced the belief that Guardiola’s men are sabotaging themselves by trying to play out from the back, City did not show too many signs of improvement over the course of the 90′ against Enrique’s side, except being set up a lot better by Guardiola than Manuel Pellegrini had.
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The penalty conceded by Aleksandar Kolarov, in particular, told me and was a stark reminder too, that the Blues have yet to come to grips with playing Barcelona and “their inability to stop Lionel Messi and co. from running rampant was more psychological than tactical or technical.”
Against Southampton on Sunday, Manchester City made a laboured start, exuded a total lack of confidence and John Stones’ defensive error—which is the sixth Manchester City have made in the Premier League so far this season—epitomised not only the way they had started this game but also how they were “feeling” after the 4-0 defeat at the hands of Barcelona. And, despite responding quite well to being pegged back by Nathan Redmond’s goal, City could not take complete control of the game and had to settle for a point.
More on the Southampton game…
Sergio Aguero looked lost and failed to keep any of his three shots on target; Kevin de Bruyne had completed just 69% of his passes before being axed at the break due to a calf injury; Raheem Sterling kept ceding possession, and an almost full-strength Manchester City side featuring the fit-again Vincent Kompany, lacked identity, just eight days after they had played quite fluently against the Toffees.
Because the aforementioned problems are “psychological” and are probably occurring due to a lack of confidence on the players’ part, Guardiola could well have a difficulty in conjuring an instant turnaround. However, what Guardiola has to refrain from is, forcibly rotating his squad and inadvertently breaking the rhythm of his team.
For instance, with Kompany back and potentially remaining fit, Guardiola has a tricky decision to make in choosing two centre-backs from the Kompany-Nicolas Otamendi-Stones trio—unless he opts for a back three—but the Catalan needs to ensure that he does not rotate, especially the backline, for the sake of it.
The vibe given by Manchester City, by forming a huddle on the centre circle after the final whistle against Southampton had long been blown and through Guardiola keeping his players in the dressing room for close to an hour after Sunday’s game had ended, points to the psychological low Guardiola’s men find themselves in at the moment.
“Sometimes you are able to win 10 times in a row and after not to win five times. That is part of football. We have to accept that. I have to discover the reason why and I’m going to fight for that,” a defiant Guardiola vowed after City were held to a draw at their own den for the second successive weekend.
The Manchester City manager is likely to rotate his squad for his side’s fourth round EFL Cup clash tomorrow night against Manchester United at Old Trafford, where they won the 172nd Manchester Derby by 1-2 on September 10th.
The Red Devils have problems of their own and those problems were compounded by the 4-0 mauling at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, just hours after Guardiola’s men drew against the Saints, but Jose Mourinho’s side will be a wounded animal trying to hit back at their critics and prove, if only to themselves, how good they are.
And, with City desperately trying to return to winning ways, we could have an interesting contest on our hands. But again, if Guardiola’s men are to arrest their slide, they cannot afford to be psychologically as fragile as they were against Barcelona and to a much bigger extent against Southampton.
Manchester City’s likely starting XI for the EFL Cup clash against Manchester United (4-1-4-1): Willy Caballero (GK); Pablo Maffeo, Vincent Kompany (C), Nicolas Otamendi, Gael Clichy; Fernando Reges; Aleix Garcia, Ilkay Gundogan, Leroy Sane, Manuel Agudo Duran (Nolito); Kelechi Iheanacho.