Why the air of invincibility surrounding Manchester City is somewhat misplaced
Contrary to what football fans have been told, it is extremely unlikely that Manchester City will win four trophies this season. As the season hurtles towards its climax, talk of a mystical “quadruple” has already started to become tiresome, with the suggestion in many quarters that City are somehow bound to win four trophies. They almost certainly will not.
On the back of their total domestic dominance in 2017/2018 (in spite of crashing out of the FA Cup to Wigan Athletic of League One), City have frequently blown away Premier League opponents this season with an astonishingly clinical edge. This has led to a perception of the record-breaking champions as untouchable, despite them losing four games in the league this time around, on top of an opening gameday defeat at home to Lyon in the Champions League in September. So why is it that they are considered favourites to win every competition possible?
Understandably, the suggestion of a clean sweep from Pep Guardiola’s side in 2018/2019 has been sounded. After all, the season has sped into April and the Citizens remain in all three of the remaining competitions they entered, having already claimed the Carabao Cup with relative ease. Despite this, there are variety of factors that must be considered, rather than the thoughtless, over-simplified blanket statement to the question above existing as: “they’re the best team with the best manager.”
One element of the narrative regarding Guardiola’s City that seems to be unspoken of is their wavering defence. Clearly, in most games, City’s firepower at the other end bails them out, but it is clear to see that when opponents attack them (once they eventually regain the ball) City can get flustered. In December, they lost back-to-back games to Crystal Palace and Leicester as both employed fearless game plans to perfection. Yet, out of utter fear of engaging in a game of end-to-end chaos, many teams retreat and retreat, arguably playing further into the hands of the masters of breaking down a low block defence.
While it may be easier said than done, the vast majority of City’s opponents this season have turned up quite literally accepting defeat before it becomes an inevitable outcome.
The fear factor surrounding them has led to a common consensus among managers that they cannot be beaten, which is simply absurd, particularly after instances of proof of the contrary. On Wednesday, Neil Warnock takes his Cardiff City side to the Etihad Stadium, a game he joked about playing his U23’s in on Sunday afternoon. Given the likelihood of his team achieving any sort of result, he was possibly only half-joking, but this was the most recent example of a long list of managers taking the view that defeatist damage limitation is the best approach when facing the reigning champions.
It might seem an obvious observation, but in order to achieve a result in a football match, an approach with exactly that in mind could be beneficial. But the growing view cultivated particularly by football writers is that attempting to beat or merely attain a result against Man City is futile. After all, they’re invincible, right?
It is difficult to determine which of the trophies City will fall short of winning, but it can be narrowed down to two. City play Brighton in the FA Cup semi-final and once they beat the Seagulls as expected, Watford or Wolves shall await. Expected FA Cup victory will take the trophy haul for the season to two, leaving the Premier League and the Champions League. Success or failure in these two competitions are co-dependent: if City are pipped to the title by Liverpool, they will be provided with extra motivation to succeed in Europe, and vice versa if elimination in Europe precedes the end of the domestic campaign.
Further, it must be acknowledged that the draws City have been handed this season have been extremely favourable, to say the least. In the FA and Carabao cups, City have faced lowly opponents such as Oxford City, Newport County and Burton Albion. In the Champions League, City’s toughest opponents were Lyon who finished third in a one-horse Ligue 1 title race.
To win the Champions League they will have to beat Spurs, then most likely Juventus, before facing Barcelona or Liverpool. In the Premier League they will have to prevail in the tightest Premier league race in years (since their incredible 2012 triumph) with an arguably harder run-in than Jurgen Klopp’s side. Frankly, these teams will not treat them with the same reverence as the majority of their opponents this season.
In order to complete such a historic achievement, experience is beneficial. While City have reigned domestically, they are significantly lacking experience of success in the Champions League. For their quarter-final opponents Spurs, this is a stick used to beat them with, but for some reason the same concerns have not been muted about the tournament’s “favourites” City this season.
In fact, it could be argued that the pressure is more on City than their opponents: they fell at the quarter-final stage to domestic rivals last season; are chasing an unprecedented quadruple, but perhaps most importantly their manager has not delivered European success of any kind for City yet.
Guardiola was successful in the Champions League with his historic Barcelona team, but he never got past the semi-final stage in four years at Bayern Munich. At City, the club has only reached the semi-finals once. Ever. This constitutes failure, both for Guardiola since his days in Catalonia and also for his current employers, in turn leading to heightened pressure for success this season – success that nothing other than lifting the prestigious trophy in Madrid in June would constitute.
Often, City’s air of invincibility is bred from the assumption that their squad depth is incomparably impressive. Is that really the case? While it is unquestionable that their midfield and attacking options are among the best in world football, their strength in defence is arguable. Of course, the ability to rotate and rest a selection of world class forwards such as Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez to name but a few is remarkable, but beyond that?
When City have suffered injuries to their so-called key figures – most notably Fernandinho – this season, their dominance has diminished, albeit only slightly at times. After all, the embarrassment of riches available to City can sometimes feel like a top-heavy problem for Guardiola, and has come from billionaire owners with the lust for immediate success a seemingly more pertinent issue than human rights.
City might yet win four trophies in one season. The finish line is within sight. This could be their undoing though, and the more Guardiola and his players believe what they hear about themselves as an unstoppable force – they will be stopped. With an array of attacking talent available at all times, they play an expansive style with the knowledge that they can blow most teams in the world away.
Yet, with a congested fixture list in April and the pressure to complete a previously unmatched achievement in English football ramping up, how will this apparently invincible assembly hold up? To suggest that it is somehow inevitable that Guardiola’s men will win virtually every single game across three competitions and waltz to an unprecedented quadruple with infallible simplicity seems frankly ridiculous.