Few of us saw Manchester City’s defeat to Norwich coming. Sure, Pep Guardiola’s team were missing players, but so were Daniel Farke’s Canaries, and the visitors were coming off the back of 10 points from four games.
City have rebounded with a victory in Europe, swatting Shakhtar aside in the manner many expected them to despatch Norwich. Back to normal, right?
Well, not necessarily. Here’s why we think City could be in line for back-to-back league defeats for the first time since Leicester City and Crystal Palace put them to the sword around Christmas last year.
1. The whole ‘Not Having Any Centre-Backs Left’ thing
To lose one £40m+ centre-back to injury is careless; to lose two at the same time is plain irresponsible. John Stones has now joined Aymeric Laporte on the treatment table and will stay there for a few weeks, presumably sharing hand-drawn maps of new and inventive ways to play out from the back.
Still, they have Nicolás Otamendi, a man whose greatest asset is being asked by Guardiola to bleach his hair in order to create a diversion for Sergio Agüero at set pieces, and, erm, Fernandinho for some reason. I’m sure this will be fine against a fluid Watford front-line and not result in Otamendi replicate his ‘let the likes of Robert Huth look dynamic’ party trick.
2. Watford’s new manager bounce
We’ve already seen Quique Sánchez Flores leave his mark on his new old team with the comeback against Arsenal, with the attacking dominance in the second half just as important as the eventual scoreline. The Hornets won’t have the benefit of a partisan home crowd against City, but they will have the momentum afforded by the return of the man who came within 10 minutes of beating City back in 2016.
With a bit of luck, the presence of Sánchez Flores in the opposition dugout will trick City’s players into thinking it’s still the 2015-16 season, prompting a collapse that’s both unnecessary and, more importantly, extremely funny. If you can’t see Oleksandr Zinchenko delivering an Aleksandar Kolarov-style own goal then you need to get yourself a new imagination.
3. The power of #narrative
The last time City lost back-to-back games, it started with a 3-2 loss that no one expected, as is the case now.
That game was followed by a meeting with Claude Puel’s Leicester, a team which boasted a theoretically defensively solid manager but remained enigmatic enough that you couldn’t figure out what they were going to do at any given time.
Watford’s entire Premier League existence since 2015 has been characterised by a complete absence of internal logic: they were the first team to stop Dimitri Payet’s nonsense West Ham team from scoring and demolished Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool 3-0 in that first season back, but also found themselves one minute away from losing to an Aston Villa team with 10 defeats on the spin.
Even last season, they won their first four games and then proceeded to take one point from four including a 4-0 loss at home to Bournemouth. Oh, and that Leicester squad included Jonny Evans, a Northern Ireland international defender who started out at Manchester United. Watford have one of those!
4. The false sense of security
Manchester City have won 11 games in a row against Watford, including 5-0 and 6-0 away wins in the league and a 6-0 romp in last season’s FA Cup final. Back in 2014, when Watford had the temerity to open up a two-goal lead over Manuel Pellegrini’s side at the Etihad, City decided to stop messing around and scored four times in the final 35 minutes.
The last time the Hornets won this fixture, in a second-tier match back in 1989, Ederson, Kyle Walker, Rodri, Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin de Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus had not been born.
That’s right, what I’m saying here is Watford have just been waiting for their moment. They’re due.