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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Manchester City spent £200m to get worse – but it doesn’t mean they won’t win the title

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Football

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Mikel Arteta was scarcely being controversial. Many have echoed the same sentiments, though rarely after preventing a Pep Guardiola side from scoring in two league games in a season. “They are the best team in the world, by far,” he said.

That is Manchester City’s reputation, if not necessarily their status. A stalemate left Guardiola proclaiming them merely the “third favourites” to win the title. And if a repeat treble remains on the cards, City have reached the Champions League quarter-finals and entered the title run-in without beating elite opponents in either competition.

The best by far? They were last year, eviscerating Arsenal twice in the Premier League, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in the Champions League. Yet now Guardiola is joking that he needed to “kill someone” to find a way through a low block.

But the best now? City have four points from a possible 18 against their closest challengers, the rest of the top five. They have not beaten any of them. Last season, they took 16 points out of 24 against the five highest finishers, winning five times. “Four points compared to 16; it’s a big difference,” said Guardiola.

The memory, he argued, can play tricks. “You pretend it’s 7-0 every week for six years,” he added. It wasn’t. But there were a host of statement results, emphatic wins, and illustrations of superiority to depress their pretenders to their crown. City didn’t used to enter April without any such result.

But then City aren’t as good as they were. It has been camouflaged by a 23-match unbeaten run, overlooked amid the assumption they will win everything, disguised in part by the injuries that have accounted for the less intimidating line-ups Guardiola has fielded.

And perhaps it would have been different had John Stones been fit to glide between the lines and add another dimension. His bit-part role this season is a reason why they have often lacked the chemistry they exhibited last spring. The absence of Kevin De Bruyne for the first half of the season was another. The departure of Ilkay Gundogan is a third: the former captain feels like the solution to every problem, whether as a metronome, creator, scorer, or big-game talisman. Yet the loss of Riyad Mahrez, who was directly involved in 28 goals last season, stripped them of another match-winner. Between them, Jack Grealish, Jeremy Doku, Matheus Nunes and Mateo Kovacic have either scored or assisted just 24 this year.

Man City failed to find the inspiration to break down Arsenal’s defence

(Getty)

If the latter pair were designed more to replace Gundogan than Mahrez, the verdict may be that City, fine traders in recent years, had their worst season in the transfer market since buying Eliaquim Mangala and Wilfried Bony in 2014-15, that they have spent £200m to get worse.

Only one of their signings, Kovacic, arguably ranks in their strongest side. Nunes, the £50m afterthought, has been granted just 44 minutes against the top six this season. Doku is the maverick, but rarely a match-winning one. Josko Gvardiol required two injuries in the defence to start against Arsenal.

The theory is that winners should strengthen even when at their strongest; it is not always true – Liverpool bought no senior players after winning the 2019 Champions League – and if it is hard to improve upon near perfection, almost impossible to unearth another Gundogan, for once City have paid to get worse.

Not that it should all be attributed to the signings. Perhaps it is a consequence of the heights they reached last season, but several have dipped this year. Perhaps only Phil Foden is having a far better year; Julian Alvarez may be, partly by accumulating vast numbers of minutes, but a World Cup winner does not exude class. Rodri and Nathan Ake have been excellent again.

The drop-off may be most pronounced in Grealish, even as the sense remains that he retains a tactical importance that means City are a better team when he plays. Yet his lack of goals is an issue when there is neither Mahrez nor Gundogan to compensate.

Jack Grealish came on as sub against Arsenal

(Getty)

Meanwhile, it may seem hypercritical to fault Erling Haaland’s scoring record: he has missed two months of the season and is still only one goal off 30 in all competitions. Yet it is bolstered by the days when he goes berserk, such as his five-goal showing at Luton. His Premier League record of 36 in a campaign looks more remarkable, but now he has just four in his last 11 outings. He has only struck once against the rest of the top five.

As City had a lone shot on target against Arsenal, the large numbers they amassed instead consisted of passes: some 689, 420 more than the Gunners. Yet it was without the incision to turn it into a goal.

It leaves a gulf between their immediate past as treble winners and their present as a side without a win against the clubs in the Champions League places; between Arteta’s suggestion that a gulf separates them from every other team on the planet and Guardiola’s claim that Liverpool and Arsenal are both likelier to win the title. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. But even if City do prove the best, they look a lesser side than last year.

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