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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 January 2019

What has gone wrong at Manchester City?

The reining champions have lost back-to-back Premier League games for the first time in two years. Richard Jolly dissects the areas that have seen City fall seven points behind leaders Liverpool

Manchester City's John Stones looks dejected following a 2-1 defeat to Leicester City. Reuters
Manchester City's John Stones looks dejected following a 2-1 defeat to Leicester City. Reuters

Go back three weeks and Manchester City had made an unbeaten start to the Premier League season. They had only lost two of their previous 61 league games. They were red-hot favourites to retain their title. Since then, they have lost three of four matches, slipping seven points behind Liverpool. So what has gone wrong?

Defensive difficulties

City completed August, September and October without conceding a league goal to a midfielder or a forward. Opponents had only had 15 shots on target in nine games. If that level of frugality was unsustainable, City are now in a run of nine matches without a clean sheet in all competitions. It has not helped that John Stones and Aymeric Laporte, who formed such a stylish partnership, have only started as the centre-back duo twice in eight outings, though each has also begun elsewhere. Partly because of injuries, City have lacked continuity as much-changed defences have developed holes. Everton lost 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium but had enough chances to beat City.

Full-back failings

City struggled on either side of the defence in Guardiola’s debut season and invested in upgrades in the summer of 2017. If the last two games feel like a regression, there are mitigating circumstances. Kyle Walker has proved a fine signing but endured arguably his worst game in a City shirt against Crystal Palace. He was partly culpable for all three goals, especially the third, when Guardiola said: “We cannot concede this kind of penalty.” Benjamin Mendy has been excellent when fit, but is injured again. Midfielder Fabian Delph was a terrific deputy last season but was at fault for Marc Albrighton’s Boxing Day equaliser for Leicester City. Delph then collected a red card to mean City will be down to their third-choice left-back – probably Oleksandr Zinchenko – now.

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Clinical and brilliant opponents

It can take something special to beat City. Andros Townsend scored what he felt was the best goal of his career for Palace. Four days later, Leicester’s Ricardo Pereira did arguably the same, with another spectacular strike. Palace scored from each of their three shots on target and Leicester, like Chelsea before them, with two from five. Each scored with their first shot on target, changing the dynamics. Opponents have been clinical on breaks in games when they have had less than 40 per cent share of possession.

Attacking problems

City scored twice against Palace and also hit the woodwork. They scored a wonderful goal at Leicester. But they are not creating the same number of high-quality chances – half of their efforts in those two games came from long range – and are not being potent enough. The previous talismanic Raheem Sterling has only had two shots on target in the last four league games. Gabriel Jesus did not have one against Palace; nor did Sergio Aguero at Leicester. While Jesus did score twice against Everton, perhaps only Leroy Sane of the forwards has been near his best in December. But Guardiola’s style of play is also so ambitious that any drop in standards and a finely-tuned engine can break down.

Missing Fernandinho

Guardiola said four weeks ago that City would “kill” Fernandinho if they played him in every game. Injury has meant the Brazilian has missed the last two, and City have lost both. He is their most important player, partly because of the lack of a natural alternative after a mooted move for Fred last January and Jorginho rebuffed City’s advances to join Chelsea in the summer. Stones was an unconvincing deputy against Palace and Ilkay Gundogan, who lacks the Brazilian’s physicality off the ball, took over at Leicester. But he does not protect the defence as well.

Injury issues

Perhaps the irony is that, having coped wonderfully with Kevin de Bruyne’s absence, City’s results have deteriorated as he has returned. Yet it has come at a time when others have been absent. David Silva came off the bench at Leicester, but City started against Palace without the first-choice midfield trio of the Spaniard, Fernandinho and De Bruyne, plus Mendy and Aguero. Even the deepest squad would struggle to cope without five players of that calibre, especially if others are off form.

But some context …

City are only so far behind the leaders because Liverpool are setting a record-breaking pace. “We made an incredible number of points,” Guardiola said and, he is right. City are three points better off than they were at this stage of 2013/14, when they went on to win the title, and they have already played away to the rest of the top five.

Updated: December 27, 2018 04:48 PM

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