Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 28 January 2020

Pep Guardiola finds himself in uncharted territory but determined to 'improve and move forward'

Manchester City trail Premier League leaders Liverpool by 14 points, with Catalan admitting his side are particularly vulnerable to counter-attacks

Pep Guardiola finds himself in uncharted territory. Normally when that has been the case in recent years, it has been a case of unparalleled excellence that has meant the record books required rewriting. Procuring 100 Premier League points, for instance, or winning 18 games in a row, or claiming a domestic treble. Now he finds himself 14 behind Liverpool before Christmas. “It is the first time,” said the Manchester City manager. “As a football player, maybe. As a manager, no.”

Saturday’s Manchester derby defeat makes it unlikely in the extreme that City will complete a hat-trick of league title wins. Their form over the previous two seasons was so extraordinary that, logically, it was unsustainable. So it has proved. “The reality is we are 14 points [behind] for the mistakes we have done, for the quality of our opponents and especially as well the things we cannot control,” said Guardiola. City have actually dropped fewer points than Manchester United did in the opening 16 games of their treble-winning season 21 years ago but the current gap reflects Liverpool’s record-breaking pace.

The things City cannot control could include VAR – Guardiola spent Saturday repeating a mantra that it will be better next season – and injuries, an issue he is reluctant to raise. “I could come here and complain about many things,” added the Catalan. He could mention that Aymeric Laporte has not played since August and that Leroy Sane has not featured in this season’s Premier League. Sergio Aguero and Oleksandr Zinchenko have been missed of late. John Stones, David Silva and Rodri have been out and the defender may be sidelined again now. Benjamin Mendy, following a long lay-off, cannot play every game.

City have had to compensate and to recalibrate. The machine may not be as well-oiled as it was. “I like my team and how they play,” Guardiola said. “Maybe I am alone but that is how it is. But when you play this way you have to avoid the counter-attacks. We were so good in that in the recent past and this season sometimes struggle a little bit: for the new players coming [in], for different situations.”

United caught City on the counter-attack. So did Wolves for their goals when they won at the Etihad Stadium. It has been a theme, with Liverpool, Chelsea and Southampton all breaking quickly to score against City in recent weeks. Perhaps City are missing Fernandinho in midfield as he adjusts to life in defence and they begin a decade where Rodri could be the holding midfielder. It gives it a slightly transitional feel and scope for improvement as City look to pierce packed defences and stop opponents launching deadly breaks.

“United have the quality to defend and the quality to attack on the counter-attack and you have to accept that,” Guardiola reasoned after being asked if City would prioritise the Champions League. “But that is the level we face against Liverpool, United, Barcelona, [Real] Madrid, Juventus. They are the teams we have to face and the reality is maybe we are not able now to compete with them [now] so we have to improve and accept it and move forward.”

Off the pitch, City will give a lifetime ban to a supporter who was seen racially abusing the United midfielder Jesse Lingard. Greater Manchester Police announced Sunday that they had arrested a 41-year-old man on suspicion of racially aggravated public order. City worked with GMP and reiterated they have a zero-tolerance policy about any form of discrimination. “I support the statement the club has made,” said Guardiola. The English Football Association are also investigating the incident.

Updated: December 9, 2019 09:02 AM

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