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It’s hard to put your finger on what exactly has led to Manchester City’s inexplicable decline this season.
Certainly, a team in third place in the uber-competitive Premier League behind an absolutely rampant Liverpool and a resurgent Leicester City can’t be so bad. A team that took a two-goal lead against sixth-place Wolverhampton Wanderers in spite of going down to 10 men in the 12th minute, before squandering it in a scintillating 3-2 loss, surely isn’t all that far off.
Yet after Friday’s result, City has 38 points at the halfway mark, failing to claim second place from Leicester. Furthermore, Pep Guardiola’s team lags fully 14 points behind the Reds, who retain a game in hand, no less.
City also lags far behind itself. Its previous two incarnations won the title with 98 and a record-setting 100 points, respectively.
This City is on pace for 76 points.
This City has already lost five times in the league, just one defeat short of its number of losses in the last two seasons combined. It was just the second time a team had beaten Guardiola’s team twice in the same league season.
What’s so bizarre is that very little has changed. Guardiola remains effective as the foremost manager of his generation. And in fact, City got stronger over the summer, adding Rodri to finally fortify its thin coverage in defensive midfield. All of its leading players – Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Sergio Aguero – very much remain at the peak of their primes. Yes, center back Aymeric Laporte has been injured all season, and so has winger Leroy Sane, but for a team with the means and depth of this one, that doesn’t track as an explanation for its woes.
And it was a sign of the deference paid to this City side that even when Wolves went up a man, it initially stuck to its counter-attacking scheme.
In just the 12th minute, City’s sweeper-keeper Ederson charged from his box too zealously and took out Diogo Jota, for which he was summarily sent off. That meant lone striker Sergio Aguero had to make way for another goalkeeper in Claudio Bravo, dulling the point atop City’s attack.
Still, City took the lead. In the 22nd minute, Leander Dendoncker stood Riyad Mahrez’s foot. The penalty was given upon Video Assistant Referee review. Rui Patricio saved on Raheem Sterling’s effort, but the VAR interfered again when it spotted encroachment and referee Martin Atkinson ordered the penalty re-taken.
Even after that, Patricio saved again, but the rebound rolled right into Sterling’s feet for the simplest of tap-ins.
Right after the break, Sterling was set loose through a high Wolves back line, scurried off with the ball and scored on a dainty chip to double the score.
But in the 55th minute, Adama Traore made a game of it again by going on a stampeding run up the middle and smashing a low shot past Bravo from a long way out.
A Wolves equalizer appeared imminent as City was pinned ever further back and demonstrated how uncomfortable it actually is absorbing pressure, something it is neither built for nor accustomed to.
Benjamin Mendy was ultimately muscled off the ball by Traore, who pinged it across to Raul Jimenez for the equalizer.
On the brink of stoppage time, Matt Doherty combined his way into free space and beat Bravo for the Wolves winner.
The lead held up even as Sterling pinged a free kick off the crossbar in the 93rd minute, denying him a hat-trick and City a late point.
Wolves had earned their victory. In fact, they had every right to feel aggrieved by officiating from the two VAR calls – the first was entirely correct, the second was right yet fairly draconian – and Atkinson’s failure to play the advantage on several City fouls.
Certainly, Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo painstakingly built a well-drilled (and well-financed) team that has fully deserved the fifth place it climbed into, just two points out of the Champions League places. But there really ought not be an even contest between this loaded City side and, well, anybody not named Liverpool.
There is no reason for City to be this bad, for it slip so far below the heady standards it set for itself the last two seasons. And while nobody can tell why or how it has ended, exactly, it feels for all the world like Manchester City’s party is over.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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