It is not Pep Guardiola’s most famous treble of 2023. It won’t be his favourite one, either. First Cole Palmer, then Trent Alexander-Arnold and now Dejan Kulusevski have scored late equalisers against his team. Manchester City’s serial winners have become habitual drawers, taking the lead six times in their last three league games and dropping six points.
Had City done as expected, closing games down with enviable ease, even against opponents of the calibre of Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham, then the Premier League table would take on a very different look: Guardiola’s side would be three points ahead of Arsenal, seven clear of Liverpool, with nine straight wins in all competitions. Another title would seem theirs for the taking.
Instead, there has been a rare frailty, an uncharacteristic carelessness. City suffocated games with excellence at times in the past. Now they have enlivened them with entertainment; Guardiola was not supposed to be the new Kevin Keegan, offering anarchy, showing a self-destructive streak.
It may just be a phase. It is scarcely unknown for Guardiola to tinker in search of a compelling formula at the start of seasons before embarking on extending winning runs. It may yet happen again; or the near perfection of past glories rendered it inevitable that, sooner or later, standards would slip.
For the first time in six-and-a-half years, City have gone three league games without a win. They have dropped 12 points already; they only mislaid 14 when they were centurions. The broader significance may lie in a different number, a lower one than in recent seasons. City have won titles with 100, 98, 86, 93 and 89 points. Most are unattainable for even the finest of other teams. At their current rate of progress, they are on course for 82. That renders them beatable. Even a tally in the high eighties may be reachable for Arsenal or Liverpool.
Guardiola has often countered his own argument, insisting the Premier League is the toughest in the world, listing a series of supposed contenders and then distancing them. Thus far, City’s superiority has not been as apparent in meetings with their challengers.
Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs have all held them. Arsenal have beaten them. City did well to grind out a 1-0 win over Newcastle but their only emphatic victory against the nominal big seven was the 3-0 against Manchester United, which may say more about Erik ten Hag’s ragged bunch. It gives them nine points from a possible 18 against those six sides; last season, they took 25 out of 36.
City could argue they should have won each of the last three but Guardiola did not plead misfortune. “I learn from Johan Cruyff that bad luck in football doesn’t exist,” he said, citing his lodestar. City may instead rue their bad decisions, poor discipline, defensive difficulties and certain misses. They have amassed 49 shots in those three draws, for instance, with a profligate Erling Haaland a culprit against Spurs. But City have not been ruthless enough to take a two-goal lead in any of their draws. “City could have blown us away,” said Ange Postecoglou, but they did not.
They have other ways of offering opponents encouragement. They lost to Wolves and Arsenal when Rodri was suspended for a senseless sending-off. They now travel to Aston Villa, their new neighbours in the table, without the banned Spaniard and Jack Grealish; each has collected five cautions and, damningly, the Englishman’s have come in five substitute appearances.
Meanwhile, Guardiola’s new defensive formula – seemingly and strangely borrowed from Tony Pulis – is looking less of a guarantee of frugality. Even though he has stuffed his squad full of centre-backs, City have conceded 10 goals in their last four games in all competitions.
A susceptibility to the counterattack is a familiar failing, and one that Tottenham have exploited before. Conceding to headers – both Thiago Silva and the rather shorter Kulusevski have scored from them – is an unexpected development, given the height at the back.
“Every chance we concede, we concede a goal,” Guardiola lamented. “We lost against Wolves with two shots on target. We have to learn, review, be more cold to analyse but we see the team.”
And the dynamic of the team has changed. Guardiola’s battalion of centre-backs don’t have the protection his midfield used to provide in the form of perpetual possession. They miss Ilkay Gundogan’s tactical intelligence and John Stones’s intuitive feel for the game. A midfield has brought penetration with three players with a vertical brand of football, with Julian Alvarez, Jeremy Doku and Phil Foden forever looking forwards.
Guardiola may want to sacrifice one in the quest for safety – perhaps Mateo Kovacic, a stranger to the scoresheet, might be restored when fully fit, or Rico Lewis introduced. Certainly City’s games have been unusually open, producing the first 4-4 scoreline of Guardiola’s coaching career and a rare 3-3. But in the process they have made the title race more open than anticipated. Plenty of teams can draw comfort when City share the points, but they are not among them.