No Plan B? No leaders? Myth-busting Man City's faltering title bid

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The Blues have slipped below their standards and behind Liverpool in the title race, but some of the 'reasons' for their defeats are overblown

Manchester City have lost four matches this campaign, more than they did in the entirety of last season, and in three of those they have thrown away a one-goal lead.

Those three defeats have come in little over a month – with the latest being Tuesday’s shock 2-1 reversal at Newcastle – and, inevitably, questions are being asked, and accusations made.

There have been claims that City don't have enough leaders, that they’ve got complacent, that Pep Guardiola has no Plan B or that mistakes were made in the transfer window.

There is merit in many of those assessments, although it is far too simplistic to play up any one in isolation.

For starters, when people talk about Plan B it usually means boot the ball up to a target man, park the bus, or both. The argument also ignores the intricacies of Plan A, which seems to be regarded as possession football as a whole and does not allow for the different approaches within it.

City do have different approaches, but of course that does not make them infallible. Recently, City have struggled to put a game to bed when 1-0 up and then failed to respond when the opposition pull it back.

Yet the issue of leadership here is misleading. Of course City have leaders, they wouldn’t have got this far without them, much less achieved a 100-point season.

The problem lies in the common footballing definition of a leader. When Maurizio Sarri said Eden Hazard is not a leader it was painted by some as an “astonishing attack”, which is nonsense.

Hazard is not Roy Keane but he has never pretended otherwise. He leads Chelsea in a different way, and both he and Sarri know that.

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It is an ‘accusation’ that Lionel Messi has to deal with and now City, too.

The Blues have Vincent Kompany and Fernandinho but a team’s leadership generally comes from the system itself, from players like Hazard and Messi who understand it, but do not scream and shout.

Sergio Aguero and David Silva, for example. Kevin De Bruyne is another who leads by example. City have players who are brave in the sense that they demand the ball in dangerous areas.

Yet it is understandable why the recent limp performances are linked to a lack of leadership, and even with the absence of a Plan B, even if it’s not the case.

Both play into the fact that for Guardiola, the system is king.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one example of a big ego Guardiola has banished and the Swede has said that Xavi and Andres Iniesta “were like schoolboys” who always obeyed the Catalan. Ibrahimovic generally comes across as bitter but there is something in that.

It is foolish to criticise Xavi, Iniesta and others for obeying a system that works, but perhaps it does help to explain why Guardiola teams can look beaten when things go against them.

If the leaders follow the system to the letter, but the system isn’t working for whatever reason, where do they look for inspiration? They simply have to trust the system and keep going.

Last season, they were rewarded with some late goals and it is tempting to say City have missed those moments recently but even that comparison doesn’t really stand up; looking at Raheem Sterling's crucial late goals, two of three came from a dedication to the plan of working the ball into the box.

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It is, however, true that last term City had a fully fit De Bruyne creating goals out of nowhere, which they have not had for much of this season.

Perhaps more investment in the transfer market would have helped change the flow of games. City were ultimately unlucky that Napoli refused to sell them Jorginho, and it seems a bit over the top for people to now claim there was no logic in signing Riyad Mahrez. Another forward was clearly needed for an assault on all four fronts.

City never planned to buy a left-back last summer but maybe they should have known that Benjamin Mendy and Fabian Delph could not be relied on all season, for various reasons.

Perhaps all this is over-analysis. City have slipped below last season’s standard and Liverpool’s standard, but what a standard that is. They are still an excellent team and could yet win four competitions; Liverpool's surprise draw at home to Leicester on Wednesday means that the champions are only five points off top spot with 14 games still to play.

But given Guardiola has said that City “forgot to play" when leading in recent games, it does suggest there is something that needs correcting if trophies are to be lifted.

City’s players are not carrying out the manager's instructions effectively but it seems heavy-handed to suggest they have wilfully stopped responding to him, given the results, overall, have been good.

It cannot be complacency, either; City maintained last season’s performances up until December before things started to go wrong; surely they did not decide that the title was in the bag at that point?

If neither revolt nor complacency then there must be something else to it.

Guardiola suggests – publicly – that the slump is just one of those things, that mistakes happen and that his players aren’t fresh.

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Maybe the fact so few City players had a proper pre-season, after playing at the World Cup, is an issue.

These kind of things are often seen as excuses rather than legitimate reasons, but they are realities. In the two games over Christmas, City were without Fernandinho and David Silva, while De Bruyne wasn’t fully fit, and that cannot be overlooked.

There are many reasons why City’s title bid is faltering, but whether they add up to a little or a lot will only become clear in May.

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