It might have been much worse for Manchester City, but it has been a week when their claims to immortality took another severe jolt. Had Liverpool been able to get more than a draw from Leicester, then the champions’ defence of the Premier League would have been in severe tatters. As it is, Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat at Newcastle was still a hefty puncturing of the myths that were created last May.
City, the richest club of all, are learning that nothing is gained by staying still in football. As they claimed 100 points to win the title, scoring 106 goals, they were hailed as the best Premier League team of all. In the depths of the following winter, that now resembles a severe case of recency bias.
In the haze of that triumph, the club’s lengthy quest to tempt the world’s best coach had borne the sweetest of fruit. And meanwhile, City fans were hailing David Silva as the best player in Premier League history, as the Spaniard delivered another season of consistent excellence amid troubling personal circumstances.
As January turns to February, with the Champions League imminently complicating matters as the trophy that the club’s Abu Dhabi owners surely want most of all, City’s expected dominance has not come to fruition; they are lagging behind Liverpool and other Premier League opponents have come to realise they needn’t just roll over. All three of those claims to greatness have been scarred by time; the best teams defend their title, so do the coaches, while the choice of Silva always ignored true greats like Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo and Alan Shearer.
Silva was anonymous at Newcastle, not the first game he has struggled in of late, though he has not been alone in disappointing. During that defeat, the same fault-lines were apparent as in those Christmas defeats to Crystal Palace and Leicester: poor defending and distracted performances from players who could not respond to their manager’s passionate exhortations from the sidelines.
The club cannot say it wasn’t warned that following up the title would not be a cakewalk. Over two legs of last season’s Champions League quarter-final, Liverpool more than had City’s measure and where Jurgen Klopp’s team made reinforcements through hefty spending to augment a unit already on an upward curve, City chose to buy just one player, and now look highly complacent for choosing not to find someone to ease Fernandinho’s midfield burden.
Alongside Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez was one half of the elemental force that inspired Leicester to the 2015- 2016 title, and cost £60m. He has yet to feature in the Premier League in 2019, suggesting Guardiola has come to the same conclusion that many others did in July – that the Algerian was a luxury signing.
Guardiola has history with making additions to a squad that previously looked almost perfect. At Barcelona, in the summer of 2011, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez were added to a team that won a treble of trophies and destroyed Manchester United in the Champions League final. Both found themselves shunted around the team without ever fitting in.
There is little doubt Guardiola can bring greatness from a team, since Barca were the undoubted best of the 21st century, and City did reach uncharted territory last season. It is his powers of renewal and reinvention that there is a continuing query against. Many of his contemporaries in this age of coaches being as famous and rich as their players have that same question against them, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane to name just three.
With Liverpool on the scene, City have not been able to skate serenely to an easy title defence and concentrate on the Champions League. Last season, their closest challengers were Manchester United, where Mourinho appeared to settle for second before the autumn leaves had fallen.
A braver, and far more lucid, Mourinho took down Guardiola when leading Real Madrid to the 2011-12 Liga title, and that still registers as the only genuine title race the Catalan has been part of. Barca breezed to a trio of consecutive titles in his first three seasons, only to crack in the fourth as their coach, worn out by a relentless drive for excellence, prepared for an exit and a year’s sabbatical in New York City.
When he was in Germany, Bayern Munich, with Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund on the downward slope, had no credible challengers and cruised to the Bundesliga title by margins of 19, 20 and 20 points. And his first season in Manchester, one that is now recalled as a period of building and acclimatisation, saw City finish 15 points behind champions Chelsea.
Barring Liverpool suffering a crisis as pressure envelops them, this current title race, then, is a step into largely unfamiliar territory for Guardiola, his stomach for the fight an unknown quantity. This is a manager whose record on the biggest occasions has hardly unimpeachable since leaving the Barca cocoon; Bayern lost three successive Champions League semi-finals, to Real, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, and each of those were ties in which his complicated tactical stratagems fell flat.
Since his Barca days, it is not hugely unfair to suggest that nerve has repeatedly failed him when a moment of truth arrives; the first of those semi-final losses saw Real Madrid crush Bayern 5-0 on aggregate, while the following year, the tie was lost in a first leg in which Barca crushed Bayern 3-0. A yet crueller view is that the lack of Lionel Messi is the reason for Guardiola being unable to replicate his Barcelona achievements.
“We’ll never see a player like him ever again,” said Guardiola last year of Messi, but it is in finding reinforcements for far less extraterrestrial players he has had problems. Last summer’s chase in vain for Jorginho and the lack of a secondary target now appears a severe misstep by City’s back-office operatives. Even if Jorginho might not be suited to the Premier League, as would be the view of more than a few Chelsea fans, that pursuit suggested an area had been targeted. Fernandinho had a stellar season in the title campaign, but was 33 with severe miles on the clock.
Instead, after letting known their annoyance at not getting Jorginho, and even pulling out of bidding for Fred, who eventually went to Manchester United, though none too successfully so far, City pulled up the drawbridge and settled for Mahrez. They have been inactive in January.
“We have to be quicker and smarter and try to buy the players,” Guardiola said last week, in reference to Barcelona winning the battle for Ajax midfielder Frenkie De Jong, someone with the skill-set to one day replace Fernandinho. It is exceedingly rare to hear Guardiola raise even the merest quibble against his club, but it betrayed frustration.
A manager whose awareness of his place in history is undoubted, with two authorised biographies and a fly-on-the-wall mini-series already released, has a legacy to protect. A failure to win the Champions League or Premier League this season would leave him with an identical record to predecessor Manuel Pellegrini, and beyond that, a failure to win the FA Cup or Carabao Cup would actually leave Guardiola with an inferior roll of honour to the Chilean’s three seasons in charge.
Last season’s summiting of Mount Olympus now looks the easy part of the Guardiola mission. Complacency has endangered there being a repeat.