JACK GAUGHAN: Manchester City have gone from control to chaos

JACK GAUGHAN: Since the departure of midfield genius Ilkay Gundogan, Manchester City have gone from control to chaos – and robbed Pep Guardiola of his beloved ‘pausa’

  • Since the ex-captain’s summer move, Man City have struggled to dictate play 
  • New signings Nunes and Kovacic could yet step up but need Guardiola’s trust 
  • Man City have dipped, but Gary Neville is WRONG to say they’re complacent – Listen to It’s All Kicking Off

Remember when Manchester City were boring? When punters could not bear to watch them. All so predictable: the games and the results. Pass the remote.

How City’s fans, and Pep Guardiola, yearn for the days when their winning style of football drew groans. A style of football that depends on control, on slowly strangling the opposition by keeping and moving the ball.

But 15 games into their third consecutive title defence, only Premier League games involving Aston Villa and Brighton have yielded more goals than City’s 53. It’s been chaos this season — and not always the organised sort.

The six-point gap to leaders Arsenal will not bother Guardiola so much. They’ve come from behind before and there is always a belief they will build a winning run that takes the title. There is no reason why that cannot happen again, but Guardiola will have to plan the assault in a different way.

This season the team is made up of direct wingers such as Jeremy Doku and boundless runners from midfield like Julian Alvarez — which has left the defence exposed on occasion.

Man City’s style this season showcases direct wingers such as new recruit Jeremy Doku

Striker Erling Haaland has been forced deeper into midfield to varying degrees of success

Pep Guardiola is finding life after Ilkay Gundogan (pictured) difficult to adjust to this season

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Ilkay Gundogan’s departure, a freebie to Barcelona, is the biggest change City are having to adapt to. He was captain, scorer of historic goals, but also the one man who truly got Guardiola and the skill of pausa: how to dictate matches. He rarely lost the ball and knew exactly when to quicken or slow proceedings down.

The one player available during the defeat at Villa who could do that job, Bernardo Silva, was shunted to the right wing given absentees elsewhere. It left City with two centre halves (Manuel Akanji and John Stones), a teenage full back (Rico Lewis) and a striker (Alvarez) in midfield.

The subsequent lack of control meant Erling Haaland dropped deeper to get on the ball. He had just two touches in the Villa box as a result (compared to nine in the same fixture last season, when he scored). And the striker’s average position was in his own half on Wednesday night, compared to three-quarters of the way up the pitch last season.

In that fixture Gundogan pulled the strings — alongside Rodri and Kevin De Bruyne, both of whom were absent at Villa Park on Wednesday — and fed the ball up to Haaland.

Gundogan is a midfield genius and there was real frustration around City that they didn’t convince him to stay — even if the German’s injury record was a worry. When you add the departure of Riyad Mahrez, another adept at taking a step back to choose his moments, and look at the profile of player to arrive, City are in a transitional phase.

Alvarez, for example, always wants to go forward quickly, understandable given he is a natural attacker. Doku the same. Some of the control has been lost. Against Villa on Wednesday, City had 54 per cent of the ball. Last season at Villa Park, they had 72 per cent. ‘There were a lot of duels where if we had won the ball, we would have had a good attack, and if they had won the ball they would have had a good attack,’ Akanji said. ‘They won 90 per cent of these duels. The other games weren’t like this.

On Wednesday against Villa, Erling Haaland’s average position was in his own half as he went looking for the ball due to City’s relative lack of possession

Last season at Villa he played much higher up as Gundogan, De Bruyne, and Rodri controlled the game

‘We had control against Tottenham, against Liverpool, we should have won. Against Villa we shouldn’t have.’

With those words, Akanji — whose own take on the Stones role is not really working — nailed it. Villa wasn’t the same, Villa was a 1-0 battering, the sort of damage City usually inflict on others.

Guardiola took the blame. ‘It’s my duty, my job to find a way to (retrieve) the situation,’ he said. ‘We have to change the dynamic. We have to reflect what we have to do with the players that we have.’

After a lengthy, engaging and passionate defence of his players on Tuesday — only this man, at this club, has to defend his squad after three draws against decent opposition — Guardiola hit upon the crux of the matter. He said that the core of this team had changed, effectively that the reliable pausa merchants had gone, exchanged for hard runners. And he has to find a way of making that sing.

The summer signings, Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes, could both yet work. There is no way of making any definitive assessment on either given their lack of game time.

Kalvin Phillips is clearly not going to make it at City. He remained an unused substitute against Villa. But Kovacic and Nunes are so far removed from how Gundogan plays that it is going to take time for them to settle into the team.

Neither has Guardiola’s trust yet and both have suffered injuries. They would be given more time if City were taking their chances; Haaland was guilty of missing good opportunities against Tottenham and Villa.

Summer signing Mateo Kovacic could yet provide some balance but is yet to gain trust needed

Kevin De Bruyne is much missed this season, but he alone can’t fix the issue when he returns from injury

But blaming Haaland is churlish: he is the Premier League’s top scorer and has five goals in his last six games.

And although he is top of the Premier League list in terms of ‘big chances missed’, that is because he gets lots of ‘big chances’. Feed him and he will score enough.

That is where De Bruyne is missed. He regularly assisted Haaland and will do so again when he returns. But he alone does not completely fix things and restore that pausa Guardiola craves.

The manager might have to unearth another tactical masterclass if City are to make history with a fourth title on the spin.


It’s All Kicking Off is an exciting new podcast from Mail Sport that promises a different take on Premier League football, launching with a preview show today and every week this season.

It is available on MailOnline, Mail+, YouTube , Apple Music and Spotify

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