What has gone wrong at Manchester City this season? Where is the brilliance that brought them two title-winning seasons in a row?
You still see it in flashes but the intensity that once swept teams aside seems to have dissipated, especially against the better opponents in the Premier League. The unrelentless flame of Pep Guardiola’s side is flickering rather than burning. At a push it could be said that the City players are going through the motions.
They still want success, but they no longer need it. And once top players start to see their teammates appetite fading and their main opponent for the title running away with the league, missed chances simply become a symptom of what is happening, it is not the cause for suddenly not winning games.
There have been a lot of reasons levelled at why City are so far behind Liverpool this season; too much rotation of players, too many passes around the opposition’s penalty box, too few shots blocked, but until a team is completely broken, there is no point trying to fix it.
This is also a warning to Liverpool, who will see from City’s current struggles that it is hard to create and maintain a squad that can stretch its success over five years or even a decade. Manchester United dominated much of the 1990’s and 2000’s, but they had dips that they had to come back from too.
The stats this season reveal everything. City have lost six games this campaign, two more already than the whole of last season, and Guardiola has never lost seven games as a manager in one season during his 10 years in management.
Any defending champion that has seen its dominance broken by a team in such incredible form would be a bit dazed. It took a 14-game winning run for City to reel in Liverpool last season, but 24 wins from 25 games for the Reds is a statistic that City seem powerless to disrupt this time.
City have rightly been heralded as one of the best to ever grace the Premier League, but for months they have had to watch their dominance collapse, whilst a superior team emerges just up the M62.
What does that do to a world-class player who fought it once last year? Has the spirit for the fight wilted at the thought of having to do it all over again?
Guardiola’s style is intense, it requires players to hound the ball and to not surrender possession, but this must surely have a life cycle because it asks so much of the players. Guardiola’s get-out is winning the Champions League; a victory which would eclipse his success in the Premier League. But if the players have lost faith in each other, the system, or in Guardiola, it will be an even harder job to beat Real Madrid in the next round.