Manchester City problems mount for manager Pep Guardiola
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Pep Guardiola had enough to worry about even before Manchester City became embroiled in possibly the biggest Premier League scandal of all time.
Off the pitch, City face accusations that the club breached a host of financial regulations with their lavish spending. With that, Guardiola faces his own battle to defend the league title and keep his side’s season on track.
While City’s position in the table remains fairly healthy, five points behind leaders Arsenal in second place, Sunday’s loss to Tottenham fueled a growing sense that all is not well at the club. That was the case even before Monday’s explosive action by the Premier League.
Indeed, there has been a sense of unease and uncertainty around the club for much of the season. Erling Haaland is becoming more and more of a checkpoint as he tries to decipher what is wrong with City.
“Erling was fantastic. Nobody says anything when he scores goals and wins,” said City defender Kyle Walker. “All of a sudden now, when we’re not winning and he’s not scoring, they’re like, ‘Is that the problem? Are we playing better without him? I hear it all the time.
Walker is right, but his comments also suggest doubts from outside the club are filtering down to the players.
Haaland has been outstanding, scoring 31 goals in 27 games. Yet City have become more predictable thanks to such a big target at centre-forward.
In recent years, Guardiola has relied on goals from his entire squad, which makes it harder for opposing defenses to shut down threat areas. While City’s tally of 53 goals after 21 games is identical to its record at the same time last season, it is eight points behind.
Even with the addition of Haaland, City are finding it harder to win games – three fewer than at this stage last season.
The problems, however, do not rest solely on Haaland’s shoulders. He is, after all, producing remarkable numbers in front of goal. And Guardiola seems focused on other areas of his team. Last month, he noted that a team that has won four of the last five league titles has lost its advantage.
“We are a long way from the squad we had in previous seasons,” Guardiola said. “Do you think we will close the gap with Arsenal the way we play? Certainly not.”
With a squad full of world-class players, Guardiola has the luxury of leaving out some of his biggest names in a bid to freshen things up.
Phil Foden, one of Europe’s brightest young talents, has been a peripheral figure at times this season. Ruben Dias, voted England player of the year and best defender in the Champions League in 2021, has not started a league game since October or any for City since November. Joao Cancelo was loaned out to Bayern Munich on transfer deadline day after being benched for the past few weeks.
Strangest of all, however, was the decision to bench Kevin De Bruyne against Tottenham.
Guardiola is known for his unexpected calls, but leaving De Bruyne out of such an important game was a major statement that backfired as City lost 1-0 and missed the chance to reduce the Arsenal’s two-point lead.
Guardiola appears to be looking for ways to get his side to react at a time in the campaign when there is still everything to play for. Cancelo’s departure and De Bruyne’s benching look like drastic attempts to make his point but also raise questions about what he will try to do next.
Guardiola is in his seventh year at City – he has never stayed at a club for so long since becoming a manager. He may now have to oversee the rebuilding of his most comprehensive squad since taking office in 2016.
That’s for the future, though. At present, City are still in contention to win three trophies.
Solving problems off the field, however, could be much more difficult.
James Robson is on https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
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