Few would argue that Manchester City and Pep Guardiola are not the most impressive team and manager in the Premier League. Despite sitting two points off league leaders Liverpool, most would put money on Guardiola’s side to return to the top and become the first team to win successive league titles since Manchester United’s hat-trick from 2006/2007 to 2008/09. However, on Saturday night Manchester City did fall to defeat against Chelsea, and this result follows a pattern we’ve seen before.
For all of Guardiola’s brilliance, he has been criticised in the past for perhaps trying to be ‘too clever’. This is the only real criticism anyone can throw at a man who’s achieved so much and who so rarely fails. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that any tweak to the perfect balance of this City side can actually make performance levels drop significantly.
Back in 2016, when Guardiola first took charge in Manchester, he won all seven of his opening Premier League games. A 2-0 defeat at Tottenham came on the back of Guardiola starting with two holding midfielders in Fernando and Fernandinho, a ploy he’s never truly adopted in his career. City’s form continued to drop with draws at home to Everton and Southampton as the Spaniard experimented with a back three. Their next league win came at West Brom, where they reverted to their usual 4-3-3 formation.
In their dominant title winning season last year, Guardiola stuck religiously with his 4-3-3 formation, built with one ball-winning midfielder, two creative central midfielders and two out-and-out wingers supporting the No9.
When Guardiola faced Liverpool in the Premier League and Champions League in the new year, on all three occasions he looked to tweak his XI. He tried two defensive midfielders in the league, he started Bernardo Silva on the right in the Champions League at Anfield and he played a back-three at home. On all three occasions, Manchester City lost.
These are very subtle changes, and perhaps it’s just coincidence, but many might feel that these facts can’t be ignored.
This season, some have said Manchester City look even better than before. They may well be, but against Chelsea, rather than selecting Gabriel Jesus in Sergio Aguero’s absence, Guardiola deployed Raheem Sterling in a “false-9” role. As brilliant as the Englishman has been all year, the team simply looked to lose a real edge.
Some would say that in previous defeats, City have missed big players and therefore naturally have struggled without them. However, I believe this doesn’t do justice to the quality of Man City’s squad, one that has coped without Kevin De Bruyne and Benjamin Mendy for a lot of the season.
Every Manchester City player has bought into Guardiola’s intense style and preparation. However, this team is so finely tuned that when the manager does move away from the system and style he knows best, the wheels can come off this otherwise perfect Manchester City team.