Manchester City are still on for the double treble – but they are no longer the same team

The double treble is on. Manchester City have in effect already qualified for the quarter-finals of the Champions League. They have a winnable tie to reach the last eight of the FA Cup. They have 12 victories out of 13 in all competitions, seven out of eight in the Premier League.

They are deemed unstoppable, sometimes by those who don’t watch them closely. Because while City are obviously still good and with a potential medal haul giving this team their own claim to greatness, they are not as good as they were last year. And if there is time to change that, to produce the defining display, there is also the reality that the only way was down from stratospheric heights.

But there are times when the drop-off feels significant. Even beating Brentford – a feat that eluded them in their treble-winning season – offered evidence of some. Rewind to last season and a list of causes for concern, things that could be wrong with City, would be short indeed.

Erling Haaland and Bernardo Silva embrace after the Norwegian’s goal against Brentford (AFP via Getty Images)
Erling Haaland and Bernardo Silva embrace after the Norwegian’s goal against Brentford (AFP via Getty Images)

Now some of the issues may not prove fatal to their hopes, but the list is longer. And if such things are relative, if many another team would welcome the idea they had problems when in this position, there are cracks in the sheen of invincibility.

Some can be camouflaged by the scoreline. Brentford did not score at the Etihad Stadium, but they should have done, when Frank Onyeka advanced on goal. City’s only Premier League clean sheets since the end of August have come against Nottingham Forest, Manchester United, Sheffield United, Everton and Brentford. Four of those teams currently reside in the bottom seven. Logic suggests City, who recorded shutouts against Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Inter last spring, will need to show such solidity against some high-class sides.

Had Onyeka struck, City would have conceded first for the 12th time in 25 league games this season. It jars with the image Pep Guardiola’s sides have of exerting complete control. If Sir Alex Ferguson liked chasing games, the sense is that Guardiola prefers to never be in a situation where he has to.

Onyeka’s timid shot had a third significance. It stemmed from a lightning-fast break. It has long been the best way to beat a Guardiola team, but when they are at their best, they manage to cut out the counter-attacks, to spare themselves that susceptibility. It has only cost them once of late – against Chelsea on Saturday – but did so more frequently amid an autumn stutter and when the fixture list was tougher.

Erling Haaland scored Manchester City’s winner against Brentford (AP)
Erling Haaland scored Manchester City’s winner against Brentford (AP)

That City soon head into a more difficult March, with a Manchester derby, Liverpool and Arsenal, means they face such tests. The schedule could lull observers into a false sense of security about City. The harder games are to come: of the six teams they have faced twice in the Premier League, four are in the bottom seven, none in the top seven. Their fixture list has been backloaded.

Their habit of going behind is one sign they can be slow starters. So is the statistic that they have not scored in the opening 70 minutes of their last three home games. Coincidence? Perhaps, but it is less draining for them when they put games to bed earlier.

And they have had fewer routs. The gulf between them and the rest may be smaller, their dominance less pronounced. City have only scored four or more in winning a league game twice this season; they did so six times in their opening 25 league matches last year, seven in the first 25 in the preceding campaign.

That can be attributed in part to the absence of Kevin De Bruyne for five months, but there is still caution about the creator: a hamstring niggle meant the Belgian did not warm up, let alone come on, against Brentford. Meanwhile, Erling Haaland was the match-winner against Thomas Frank’s team. But he is underperforming his xG whereas last season he overperformed it. That the Norwegian missed the most big chances in the division last season shows it is not as simple as just arrowing in on spurned opportunities. However, his chance-conversion rate is down and Haaland is hitting the target with fewer of his shots.

If some of the case that City are weaker this season can come down to one name – Ilkay Gundogan, a talismanic figure who could affect games in different ways – it goes beyond him, and not merely because of the impact the sold Riyad Mahrez used to exert. He has not been properly replaced either.

City’s four main signings last summer cost almost £200m. They have made a mere 43 league starts between them and arguably none figures in Guardiola’s strongest side now. Jeremy Doku has only managed an assist in one league game, even if he did get four then. The expensive afterthought Matheus Nunes has not scored in any competition. Mateo Kovacic is injury-prone, if at least technically excellent. Josko Gvardiol, the second-most expensive defender ever, is in effect the second-choice Nathan Ake.

If City retain the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League, none of it may matter. Fall short on at least one front, however, and some of the reasons may have already been advertised.