The temptation watching Manchester City’s 1-0 win at Chelsea last Saturday was to think we were witnessing the very best of modern football. It might not have been rip-roaring, but here were two squads stocked with exceptional talent, guided by exceptional managers, engaged in a great cerebral tussle. Chelsea had won the previous three meetings, but this time in the Premier League they were stifled by the perfectly executed press of City. It all felt thrillingly high-level. And then came defeats for both sides in the Champions League.
That may not be hugely consequential. Both made changes for difficult away trips in Europe, and both can be confident of making the last 16 despite the setbacks. But still, the defeats demand a resetting of perspective. Last Saturday, City pressed perhaps as efficiently as any side has in the Premier League, and looked like a team about to embark on one of those remorseless unbeaten runs that have decided recent titles. But Tuesday’s defeat in Paris highlighted one statistic in particular: in five games away from the Etihad this season (including the Community Shield), City have scored only twice.
The obvious response is that City might have been rather more productive had they only signed Harry Kane in the summer. But to suggest that City need a striker is probably oversimplistic. After all, they have twice scored six once and twice scored five in home games this season (as well as being held to a 0-0 draw by Southampton). It’s not as straightforward as a lack of goals.
Rather, City’s problem this season is that it’s been either all or nothing: if they get ahead they can devastate opponents, but there is also a sense that if an early goal doesn’t arrive, opponents can thwart them, which was a problem for Guardiola in his final season at Barcelona, and was probably as much psychological as tactical.
Of course it is true that a bona fide striker – a Cristiano Ronaldo, say – can burgle goals from nowhere to turn defeats into draws or draws into wins. At the Parc des Princes on Tuesday, as City regularly found themselves with comfortable possession in the great rift valley between Paris Saint-Germain’s front three and their back seven, it was easy to imagine how they might have prospered with a striker at whom they could aim crosses.
But City were top scorers in winning the league last season and reached the Champions League final when their only real striker was Sergio Agüero, whose involvement was limited to seven league starts. Guardiola prospered at Bayern with a striker in Robert Lewandowski, but he is a particularly mobile forward with no qualms about fulfilling his defensive responsibilities. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s season at Barcelona was a failure in part because of a personality clash with Guardiola, but also because he was too static to fit the system.
Samuel Eto’o and David Villa were far more effective, largely because they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the side, often playing wide to allow Lionel Messi through the middle. The positional game Guardiola favours probably functions best, and the control he demands in games is probably best achieved, with a false 9 – even if that can at times slightly blunt the tip of the side to strengthen it in other areas.
But that still leaves the fundamental question of what has changed from last season. Jack Grealish has played in all six league and both Champions League games since arriving in the summer. He has not yet been an outstanding success, but neither has he struggled especially, even if a clear sense that he is finding his feet remains. That is only natural; it probably took Riyad Mahrez a year to discover his best form under Guardiola.
After Grealish’s impressive display against Chelsea – eight successful pressures and six shooting chances created were more than any other City player – he was a frustrating and frustrated figure in Paris. Although he wasn’t helped by the referee Felix Brych’s curious reluctance to admit the notion that he could be fouled, he repeatedly turned inside to play a safe pass, when his role is surely to give City a dash of the unpredictable. That, of course, is a very fine line; it would be equally unhelpful were Grealish regularly to lose possession by taking needless risks. The clear sense is of him getting used to the system and the system getting used to him.
Then there is the altogether thornier issue of Raheem Sterling. In 2017-18, he scored 18 league goals. In 2018-19, 17. In 2019-20, 20. Last season, he scored 10. From the end of February, he has managed only two for City, while continuing to score regularly for England. At the Euros, he made oblique reference to the “different reasons” that explained the downturn in his goals record. What they are, though, is unclear, although there was talk in April of a falling-out with Guardiola.
In 2019-20, Sterling scored 0.68 league goals a game against an xG of 0.58; last season that fell to 0.35 against an xG of 0.43. He is not only getting fewer chances but is converting fewer of those he does get. At the same time, his number of pressures dropped by 30% and his number of tackles by 51%. That suggests less some sort of tactical redeployment than simply somebody who has become less involved in the game.
Guardiola has made attempts, particularly over the past year, to protect his side against counterattacks. Last season, at least until the mystifying selection for the Champions League final, it largely worked. But now there is a problem at the other end. City are underscoring their xG only by 0.14 goals a game; last season they outscored it by 0.26 a game. The issue, so far, has been the distribution of the chances taken: rampant against Norwich and Arsenal, toothless against Tottenham and Southampton.
It may sort itself out over time, but the worry must be that this is a City that can get disheartened – and that, perhaps, is an issue a bona fide striker might resolve, even if Guardiola would rather control midfield.