As Manchester City left the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium downcast, it was telling. Once again, they had failed to beat Spurs, after out-shooting and laying siege on their opponents. It was the third time this had happened in as many league games for the side led by Pep Guardiola. Add the Champions League quarter-final second leg in April 2019, then it was four in five.
Pep Guardiola and Manchester City Need Mental Rebuild
Using Spurs as a Measure of Manchester City’s Trajectory
In October 2016, three months after his arrival, Guardiola’s City faced off with Spurs at the old White Hart Lane. Despite going into that game with six successive league wins to start the season, City were on the back foot. Shaken, Guardiola saw his side lose comfortably against the first opponent to hassle his team and expose their flaws. Other teams would take note, and City’s league season would fall on its face, leaving without even a title tilt.
In December 2017, Spurs went to the Etihad to face a City side that had won all but one of their league games that season. An imperious City bypassed Spurs’ press with ease and had them on the back foot virtually all game. City’s 4-1 win didn’t flatter them, and Spurs left asking the same question as many others: how can City be stopped?
In April 2019, both sides met in Manchester once more, three days after Manchester City beat Spurs 4-3 on the same ground in the Champions League, but lost the tie. This time, it was a performance of resolve and concentration, as City took a one-goal lead after 50 seconds and held on to it for the whole game. City didn’t look imperious, but impenetrable, on their way to a second league title on the bounce.
City’s Downward Trajectory
Four months after that April game, both sides met at the Etihad again. In the second game of the new season, City had Spurs on the back foot. Fifty-five per cent possession, 30 shots to their opponents’ three, and as many offsides as Spurs’ Harry Kane had touches in the City half. Yet, a dominant display only earned City a 2-2 draw.
Similar displays have followed suit. Not as dominant as the August 2019 game, but still dominating. However, their last meetings with Spurs have ended in 2-0 defeats, the latest sending their opponents to the top of the league. City still haven’t scored at Spurs’ renovated stadium.
Using these games as metrics shows how Manchester City have gone under Pep Guardiola. From shaky to imperial, to solid, then profligate, and soft-centred.
Why are City Struggling so Much?
City’s latest defeat at Spurs on Saturday highlighted some of their flaws. First off, is an inability to stretch opponents like they used to. City in their full element under Guardiola had the ability to expand the pitch as wide, as they could, and stretch play, and a goal always looked inevitable. But they haven’t been helped by a lack of a left-sided left-winger – it’s no coincidence that these problems have been rife since Leroy Sane’s absence, first by injury, then by departure to Bayern Munich. City look a bit more imbalanced and unable to wear out teams like they used to.
Another drawback of City’s is how they get short of ideas immediately. Running out of ideas has always been the case for them when the well-drilled system doesn’t work – there’s hardly anyone to step up. No one really grabs the game by the scruff of the neck, and once the system hits a snag, the entire team follow suit. But this time, they look to be running out of ideas even earlier than usual. Constantly doing the same thing over and over again, and the prospect of scoring goes from inevitable to far-fetched.
Not to mention how easy it is so play through Guardiola’s side these days. Once City lose possession, they find it hard to recover it immediately, and opponents are only one pass away from having a goalscoring opportunity. The waning powers of Fernandinho aren’t helping and neither is the fact Rodri is more distributor than a disruptor.
Is Pep Guardiola Equipped for a Rebuild?
Pep Guardiola signed a new contract a few days ago, extending his stay at the club until 2023. But some eyebrows were raised, and justifiably so. This is a manager that burns out quickly, and has never been around for a second rebuild of a club.
It’s one thing to rebuild a side. It’s another to do so having done it the first time. City, are, right now, in need of a second rebuild. Staleness seems to be setting in, and perhaps Guardiola needs a tweak to his strategy.
City’s fear factor hasn’t gone – teams still sit back against them and play damage limitation. But it’s become ridiculously easy to play against them, and as much as the team might be due a physical rebuild, some mental restructuring is also key.