What's behind Manchester City's struggles to start this season?

Pep Guardiola (right), Fernandinho and Manchester City are already eight points off the top of the Premier League table. What's gone wrong? (Getty)
Pep Guardiola (right), Fernandinho and Manchester City are already eight points off the top of the Premier League table. What's gone wrong? (Getty)

After winning the last two Premier League titles in imperious fashion, it was expected that Manchester City would continue at a canter in this campaign. But after eight games, City have already suffered two defeats, and they trail leaders Liverpool by eight points.

A team that have typically looked unbeatable in the last few seasons now look decidedly vulnerable.

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Here’s a look at some of the key reasons for City’s recent dip in form.

Man City’s lack of cover at center back

The most glaringly obvious issue in Pep Guardiola’s team is a lack of depth in central defense.

Aymeric Laporte has been Pep’s most trusted center back since his arrival in Manchester, playing 35 Premier League games last season. The Frenchman will be out with a knee injury until at least the new year.

Pep’s second favorite ball-playing defender, John Stones, has also been unavailable, although he is expected to return after the international break. And club talisman Vincent Kompany, of course, departed in the summer.

That means the only senior center back on the books in the error-prone Nicolas Otamendi, who has shown his deficiencies on several occasions this season — notably, his amateur attempt at stopping Raul Jimenez en route to goal last week.

Accordingly, Fernandinho has filled in at the back, where his talents are not best used (more on that later). A 34-year-old, whose game time must now be managed, isn’t an ideal candidate for a fast-moving defense playing a high line.

The central defensive problems also highlight Pep’s lack of faith in academy products. Taylor Hardwood-Bellis put in a great display on the club’s U.S. preseason tour, while Eric Garcia has also shown plenty of promise. But as peers like Frank Lampard show plenty of faith in kids — albeit out of necessity — Guardiola has not trusted the youngsters to step up.

City have now conceded 18 league goals in eight games. After the same amount of games last season, they had conceded only three. In the victory at Everton two weeks ago, which was much closer than the 3-1 scoreline suggested, they conceded eight shots. That’s the most they have faced in the league in three years.

Ultimately, the center back issue is down to recruitment. Instead of investing in another central player over the summer, Guardiola bought more fullbacks. Because he really loves buying fullbacks. And that leads to the next issue.

Pep Guardiola’s revolving door fullback policy

When Jurgen Klopp puts out a team sheet, you can bet your house that Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson will be selected as fullbacks, if available. Due to injury and some puzzling summer purchases, Pep does not have such concrete choices, particularly for the left back position.

Benjamin Mendy is almost certainly first-choice on the left, but his City career has been plagued by injury. This season, his only Premier League appearance came in the demolition of Watford.

Previously, Guardiola has filled the role by moving players out of position. Oleksandr Zinchenko has enjoyed the most success from this improvisation, but Fabian Delph and even Laporte have also deputized at left back.

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City re-signed left back Angelino in the summer, but the Spaniard wasn’t even in the squad as Joao Cancelo was switched over to the left for the Wolves defeat.

The use of right-footed Cancelo on this unfamiliar flank aligns with Pep’s tendency to use inverted fullbacks. It also shows a clear lack of an established plan for the left back position. Considering the importance of fullbacks to Pep’s system, this mix-n-match approach is alarming.

The Cancelo switch also suggests a lack of competition for Kyle Walker on the right; the England star may rest on his laurels when he sees that Cancelo isn’t necessarily a threat to his position.

Less protection in the Man City midfield

The main disadvantage of using Fernandinho in defense is that he is not being used in midfield.

He may not score the match-winning goals or display gif-worthy flair, but the Brazilian has been Guardiola’s most important player in the last two title-winning seasons.

His principle role is to protect the backline and create turnovers, either by overly physical obstruction, or blocking the opposition’s passing lanes. The cover he provides allows City’s attacking midfielders to push forward and flourish.

To illustrate his importance, in the rare moments where City failed last year, it was generally down to Fernandinho’s absence or highly uncharacteristic mistakes. He didn’t play in the shock losses to Leicester and Crystal Palace, and his errors led directly to defeats by Lyon and Newcastle.

Essentially, Fernandinho is incredibly important to City and is not being used to his full effect in the back. Rodri — a major summer signing who is being molded into the Brazilian’s replacement — has been impressive this season, but he doesn’t protect the defense as effectively, and can be caught out of position.

A poor Rodri take-on attempt led to Wolves’ second goal at the weekend. Fernandinho wouldn’t have taken such a risk. And that leads nicely to the next weakness.

Manchester City are sloppy

In the 5-0 win at West Ham in August, Guardiola said his side were “sloppy” in reference to their passing. After the Wolves defeat, Guardiola once again referenced the carelessness with which his team moved the ball.

“We conceded two situations with two loose balls in our build-up,” he said, referring to Rodri’s aforementioned error and Cancelo’s giveaway (in almost exactly the same area of the field) for the first goal.

Not only are City sometimes struggling to produce the crisp and clinical passing for which they are known, but they are also proving wasteful in front of goal. They had 15 shots against Wolves but drew a blank, and are averaging 20.6 shots per match this season (as per WhoScored). That suggests a lack of clinical finishing and an absence of their trademark control on the counterattack.

Despite leading the Premier League in scoring once again, Manchester City have been uncharacteristically wasteful with their chances. (Getty)
Despite leading the Premier League in scoring once again, Manchester City have been uncharacteristically wasteful with their chances. (Getty)

Man City’s shield of invincibility has dropped

In the past two seasons, City accrued an absurd total of 198 points. It is only natural that their domineering ways would diminish at some point — and perhaps we are at that point.

While this team will rack up big score lines in matches against lesser teams this season (and they already have against West Ham, Brighton and Watford), it is non-Big Six sides who are showing that this City can be beaten.

In fact, in their last 20 games against non-Big Six teams, they have lost four times.

City can struggle to break down less expansive teams who defend deep. And they are also troubled by sides like Norwich, who are brave enough to launch their own rapid counterattacks.

This team loses so rarely that they don’t actually know how to lose. In the rare instances when they go behind, City resort to firing in hopeful crosses from the wings. The games in which they’ve produced the most crosses the past two seasons were against Crystal Palace, Norwich and Wolves. All three were defeats.

This international break may be well-timed for City, who will undoubtedly learn from their mistakes and return to their terrifyingly brilliant form.

Their next Premier League match, however, is away to Crystal Palace — exactly the kind of match that has been a banana peel in recent seasons. As previously noted, the South London side defeated City at home last season, and also ended their 18-game winning streak in 2017 at Selhurst Park.

City are still an excellent team and the title race of far from over, but only one team looks invincible right now. And they play in red.

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