The perfect machine built in the south of Manchester by Pep Guardiola reached its climax with the incredible achievement of the treble last season.
After years of patience and confidence in the project, Manchester City won their first Champions League in their history and maintained the regularity of winning that characterizes them in the Premier League with five titles in six seasons.
But now, little or nothing remains from that team, which has been weakened by the injury to Kevin De Bruyne, suspension of Rodri and the departure of Ilkay Gundogan to Barcelona in the summer.
Their 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa on Wednesday means City have now gone four consecutive matches without a win: Aston Villa (1-0), Chelsea (4-4), Liverpool (1-1) and Tottenham (3-3). Such a run hasn’t happened since 2017.
Matches against big-name opponents, which City had grown accustomed to winning with astonishing ease, are no longer enjoyed.
This is nothing new – their start to last season also set alarm bells ringing – but they ended up fixing it, coming from eight points behind against Arteta’s Arsenal. This season they are now fourth and already six points behind after 15 matches.
Pep’s unwanted record
In the 535th game of the Guardiola era, it had to be the most atypical game for the Catalan’s side. City not only failed to score, something that is almost unheard of, but their total of two shots during the entire match is the lowest-ever number by a team managed by Guardiola in the Premier League.
In fact, never has any Guardiola team finished a game with so few attempts on goal.
Both came from Erling Haaland and both were saved by Emiliano Martinez, crucially when the score was level at 0-0. From that moment on, City returned to their more ‘human’ version and paid the price.
In contrast, Aston Villa were dominant. Unai Emery‘s men fired 22 shots in front of Ederson’s goal – the most attempted by any side against Guardiola‘s in a league match – and did not concede a single corner kick.
They were efficient in City’s territory too, snatching the ball away from them 13 times in the final third of the pitch, which is a credit to the work Emery has done on the training pitch. All of this came in Emery‘s first-ever win against Guardiola and it was the perfect night for the hosts at Villa Park as they climbed above City into third place.
“We know what our level is and, as a coach, I have to find a way to win games. We are struggling a little bit. I am here to help my players,” Guardiola said.
Rodri the untouchable
The numbers don’t lie. The Spaniard is the perfect cog in the Citizens’ machine and when the 26-year-old is not present on the pitch, City look vulnerable. In the 17 games that Rodri has been absent, the champions have a winning percentage of 53 per cent. When the midfielder is included in the team, the percentage rises to 73.3 per cent.
What is undeniable is how his absence negatively affects the team. City concede more goals (1.1 without him, 0.8 with him), face more shots (8.3 without him, 7.1 with him) and win fewer points (2.3 with him, 1.8 without him) when he is not available.
Put simply, Guardiola knows he must find a solution to the problem, admitting that his side “have to find a way” without the Spain international.
Last season, Guardiola underlined his assertion that Rodri is the best in his position: “We were lucky that the club signed this type of player and when he arrived he was a type of player and of course, he did a number of games and now he is captain, one of the captains of the team and he is… he is fantastic. He’s the best in Europe.”
The good news is that De Bruyne‘s recovery from his injury troubles is approaching. But after five consecutive defeats without the irreplaceable Rodri, Guardiola faces a difficult challenge in finding a deputy for the man who is undoubtedly the cornerstone of his Etihad project.