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Manchester City in big games this season: Bad luck or a cause for concern?



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In his first weekly column, Amos Murphy takes a look back at Manchester City’s showings in big matches so far this season, while asking whether it’s a run of bad luck or a genuine cause for concern.

Boring, boring City… or not? For a team – despite the success – accused of failing to entertain the masses, Manchester City haven’t half put on a show so far this season. 

All out attack has been the approach adopted by Pep Guardiola in recent weeks, with Manchester City seemingly abandoning the principles which helped guide them to an era-defining treble last time around.

Of course, as Erik ten Hag – perhaps prematurely – claimed last year, ‘eras come to an end’ and for City to maintain their success from season to season, evolution within the squad, playing style and philosophy is always going to be necessary.

But has that come at a cost to Manchester City’s chances of silverware this season?

The simple answer is no, or at least not for now. The business end of the campaign is still months away, so despite City’s shakiness at times so far this season, they remain in with a shout of winning all of the major prizes. 

But less than seven months on from a scintillating 5-1 drubbing of Real Madrid on aggregate in the Champions League semi-final, the Blues look detached from the same team that put together one of the ultimate big game performances in the competition’s history. 

Make no mistake, those matches, those nights, and hopefully those performances will return for City down the line. They more often than not do for Pep Guardiola’s teams. However, there has been a very obvious drop-off for the side this season, with just one win from the five matches against other so-called ‘big six’ sides so far.

One of the archetypal factors behind Manchester City’s success in 2022/23 was their solidity at the back. As the cult classic sung on the terraces last season to the tune of Rhythm is a Dancer by German Eurodance group SNAP! goes ‘best defence in Europe, we’re Manchester City’. Yet five months into this season, you could hardly say the same for City right now. 

In the last three Premier League games alone, City have shipped a worrying eight goals – the same number conceded across the final 13 league matches combined last season. And while – as pointed out by Pep Guardiola several times – Manchester City don’t concede a lot of chances, when they do, opposition teams are finding it easier to score. 

That’s where everyone’s favourite City-related buzzword comes in: control. Or in this current case, a lack of it. 

The obvious answer as to why that’s the case is because of key absentees. Be that through departures or injuries, the treble-winners have spent a chunk of the season without Ilkay Gundogan, John Stones Jack Grealish and Kevin De Bruyne – four players who were paramount to Manchester City’s success last time around. 

It’s forced Pep Guardiola and co. to seek alternative options across the pitch and, at times, a new way of playing. The assured, measured and risk-averse style of play which guided City towards the treble last season looks to have been ditched for a handbrake-off, chaos-inducing, heavy-metal approach, perhaps more in keeping with the way Guardiola’s long-time nemesis Jurgen Klopp has set teams up in the past. 

A key component of that has been the introduction of summer signing Jeremy Doku, whose electric approach to the game is as tantalising as it is at times frustrating. Julian Alvarez too, who has been tasked with filling the blank space left behind by Kevin De Bruyne, and given he’s a striker by trade, has understandably struggled to grasp the rigmarole of playing in a Pep midfield. Giovani Lo Celso’s equaliser on Sunday is the case in point.

And then there’s Phil Foden.

City’s star boy is enjoying a season for the ages, scoring goals and registering assists for fun, but again isn’t a player who can implement the control needed in the biggest of big games. Add all that together and you get a top-heavy front line, susceptible to transitions, 1 vs 1 attacks and at times sloppy individual errors. Something which directly impacts how City are able to defend their own goal too. 

As we saw last season, attack is the first line of defence, with City’s imperious backline benefiting from the studious approach of Jack Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Ilkay Gundogan in attack. When City went ahead, they stayed ahead, because the system was designed to implement control from the off, not midway through a match. 

Yes, the current system created plenty of chances for City against Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs. But unless all of them are taken and City run away with the game, it leaves the door ajar for opposition sides to sneak a result, despite being roundly beaten in every other aspect of the game.

The season is still young and there is every chance we look back on this period at the end of the campaign and put it down to the usual winter jitters. But as the cold nights roll in and performances show no sign of changing, the sun-soaked trophy celebrations we’ve come to know and love in recent years look just as far away right now, as a clean sheet in a big top-of-the-table clash.