1. Full-backs out of form
You only needed to watch the first half of Manchester City’s defeat against Leicester to identify the most obvious flaw in their team. Pep Guardiola dropped Kyle Walker after a run of poor form, but his replacement Danilo hardly fared any better. As James Maddison drifted wide and Ben Chilwell pushed forward, the Brazilian was overwhelmed.
On the left, Fabian Delph has generally deputised ably for the perma-injured Benjamin Mendy, but he is hardly a natural left-back and has been exposed by Andros Townsend and Ricardo Pereira in recent defeats. Suddenly, City are weak down both flanks and opposition managers have been quick to identify the chink in the armour.
The knock-on effect of full-backs struggling is that the central defenders have been forced to keep one eye on the wings, with John Stones helping on the right and Aymeric Laporte left. That creates space in central areas and leaves City exposed.
2. No Fernandinho to fight fires
The full-back issues might not be as easily exposed if Fernandinho was available. Manchester City don’t have an N’Golo Kante-style firefighter, tackling and intercepting across midfield, but Fernandinho is their closest thing. The Brazilian also has experience of playing at right-back, allowing him to cover in that position if Walker was caught upfield.
Fernandinho is the midfield rock around whom City’s attackers can all roam, safe in the knowledge that their security guard will stop most counter-attacks by means fair or foul. It is instructive that against Leicester, Manchester City looked so vulnerable to the counter-attack with Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan as the central midfield pairing. He has been missed far more than the attacking absentees.
Guardiola made little secret of his desire to sign a defensive midfielder in the summer, with Fred coming mighty close to joining. He suspected that, at 33 and having played at the World Cup in Russia after a long 2017/18, Fernandinho might struggle with soft tissue injuries. His worst fears have been realised.
3. Wastefulness in the final third
One of the hallmarks of Sergio Aguero’s brilliance has been his ability to hit the ground running after frequent muscle injuries. But this season, the Argentine appears to have rusted during his time away from the side. He has scored three times from 15 shots since the beginning of November, and against Leicester missed at least two chances to give City a lead at 1-1. Aguero is snatching at chances in a manner we are not accustomed to.
But he’s not the only one guilty of inefficiency. Raheem Sterling has been asked to play out wide right and does not have as much joy in that role. Leroy Sané produces moments of wonder during every game but is also regularly guilty of unforced errors and making poor decisions in the final third.
Guardiola might well point out that De Bruyne is just coming back after a long absence and David Silva has been injured. Any team in Europe would miss their two most creative players, and Liverpool and Chelsea have both been fortunate with injuries.
If the changing cast has caused City to stumble in the final third, those who have been selected deserve some censure – passes misplaced, crosses overhit, overlaps wasted by poor decisions. They are only minute errors, but they frustrate Guardiola on the touchline. In their last six league games, City have created 68 chances. In their first six this season they created 94. In short, they’re letting their opponents back into matches by failing to kill them off.
4. Being punished to the full
Guardiola is not foolish enough to anticipate much sympathy during this difficult run of results. He is in charge of one of the most expensive squads in world football, and is expected to match last season’s title stroll.
But there’s no doubt that City have been a little unfortunate. They’ve defended badly and been too bitty in attack, suffering lapses in performances within matches that last for 30 minutes or more. But they have also conceded from their opposition’s first shot of the match in three of their last four league games. They are being punished for every mistake in a way that Liverpool haven’t been.
Against Crystal Palace, Walker’s foul for the penalty was incredibly dim but Andros Townsend also scored surely the best goal of his career. Palace had three shots on target and scored them all. Chelsea probably deserved their win on the balance of play, but City did have almost twice as many shots.
If Guardiola’s side have suffered from lulls in intensity, they have done plenty to merit faith that they will return to form. The big question is how far Liverpool will be ahead of them by then.