How time flies. It seems like yesterday when Manchester City dominated the Premier League between 2017 to early 2019. Pep Guardiola’s team was clearly the best side in the land. The football was a beauty to behold. The team was formidable at home and entered opposition territory ready to conquer. A win in the Manchester derby was becoming the norm as was the case when facing other top sides in the division.
The team’s confidence was sky-high. From the dressing room all the way to the pitch. Even the bench played a significant role in on-field progress.
But it was all masterminded by the manager, who brought back memories of his days at Camp Nou. Having led Barcelona to La Liga and European domination while playing unbelievable football between 2008 and 2012, it was about time the football world witnessed another masterpiece. That was why he was brought to England in the first place.
City’s 25 points from a possible 30 from the top six opponents in the 2018/19 Premier League campaign tell it all. The Blues suffered only one defeat in 10 games against the five biggest teams in England. All of Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United were beaten home and away. City collected four points from the six available against Liverpool. The only loss was a surprise 2-0 capitulation away at Chelsea. But the London side was hammered 6-0 in the return leg as if to set the records straight.
Jurgen Klopp and his team were getting closer and closer to the top of the table in the meantime. Liverpool lost the league title to City by just a point in 2019 and things have not been the same since. The Anfield side has been on fire in the last two campaigns. Unfortunately, it seems City have simultaneously lost theirs. The biggest indication of this has been the team’s results in the biggest domestic games.
Of course, the statistics don’t lie.
The Blues have lost five of their last seven Premier League matches away to the other ‘Big Six’ sides. The only away victory against these teams in the last 18 months was at crisis-hit Arsenal when caretaker boss Freddie Ljungberg was in charge.
It all began at Anfield in November 2019, when the Reds inflicted a damaging 3-1 defeat on the Cityzens. The loss hit City hard. It dealt a huge blow to the team’s hopes of a third successive title. The next big setback was a 2-0 away loss to Tottenham. Then followed losses to Man United and Chelsea either side of the Covid-19 shutdown.
Just as the many changes arising from the prevalence of the coronavirus pandemic have refused to go away, City’s poor form against the ‘Big Six’ opponents continues. It appears things have become even worse for Guardiola and his troops as Leicester have joined the league of the big boys. Brendan Rodgers’ foxes opened the floodgates of poor results against the top sides this season with a shocking 5-2 triumph. Worse still, it was at the Etihad Stadium.
To leave no one in doubt of what is quickly becoming the new norm, the team suffered a 2-0 defeat at Spurs. It is the first time that Jose Mourinho has won back-to-back matches against Guardiola in their well-decorated coaching careers.
A victory at Old Trafford would have put a stop to that run of poor results against the top sides in the league. But City gave one of their worst performances under the Catalan boss’ tutelage yet at Old Trafford. The team struggled to assert any authority in the match or create any clear-cut chances to score goals and get the much-needed three points.
The conservative approach to the game is rather uncharacteristic of the Man City many have come to know in recent times. But that could have been expected, with the choice of two holding midfielders in the starting eleven. A look at history and the stats show exactly why.
Guardiola lost three of his four games against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer last season. The Norwegian enjoys a healthy 60 per cent win rate against his opposite number. That is more than any other manager in the game that has faced the former Bayern Munich boss at least four times. Add to that the team’s ongoing poor away form against top teams in the league - the result is what we saw at Old Trafford.
What has become clear right now is the fact that both the manager and the team are in need of self-belief. That will be required to mount a serious challenge for the Premier League title this term. Recent wins against Burnley and Fulham have only masked the team’s struggles in the league this season.
Before the Burnley win, City did not score more than a goal in each of five straight games. The sixth was a 2-0 loss to Tottenham.
So the numbers speak for themselves. The league table is additional evidence.
But on the positive side, one can only hope a sixth successive clean sheet in all competitions is a sign of better things to come.