If you’re going by the numbers alone, it would be hard to say that Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, after 22 games, are any better than they were under Manuel Pellegrini at this stage last season. Actually, they’re worse.
Guardiola’s side are equal to Pellegrini’s in terms of wins (13), draws (4), defeats (5) and goals scored (43). Damningly, the current side have conceded seven more - 28 compared to 21.
There are many reasons for this, and many reasons why the stats do not paint an accurate position.
For the first time, Guardiola has shed light on his plans for City, where he and his players have gone wrong, and exactly how he hopes to get them back on track.
Firstly, the mistakes he could do nothing about. City have not spent money on a full-back since Maicon in 2012, and it shows. Bacary Sagna arrived on a free in 2014 but years of overlooking the position left Guardiola in need of radical changes during his first summer in charge.
According to Marti Perarnau, a Spanish journalist and author of Pep Confidential, Guardiola was alarmed that all of his options were over the age of 30 and wanted a complete overhaul. Of course, no new faces arrived and he has had to muddle through with what he’s got.
Guardiola also wanted two centre-backs, but only got one - John Stones. City sources insisted they were ‘relaxed’ when Aymeric Laporte signed a new contract at Athletic Bilbao, but in reality City have been suffering ever since, and will do until the transfer window reopens.
Those failures have meant most of Guardiola’s defenders are not up to his demands, but the City boss has also been responsible for other oversights.
For one, his desire to play a left-footed player at centre-back has regularly seen Aleksandar Kolarov selected, despite the Serbian rarely playing well since his fine start to the season ended in chaotic fashion up at Celtic. Had Laporte arrived, this would not have been a problem.
This is all tied into the one big Guardiola mistake that has helped derail his first campaign in charge. This mistake, though, is the very reason for optimism.
Guardiola has now explained why City have fallen 13 points behind Chelsea. Far from the defiant interviews after heavy defeats at Leicester and Everton, he has spoken honestly about his own shortcomings and the problems facing his team, but insists it will all be worth it.
“Our build-up is so fundamental in my vision of football,” he says, which is nothing new.
But asked about the progress his side have made in that sense, he admits: “I think we learned a lot, we improved a lot in the beginning, and then we stopped. We stopped. I thought… maybe it looks like I’m being humble, or shy or something like that, but it was a little bit my mistake.”
The mistake he made, although he will not admit it, is that he thought his players were better than they are.
After the October international break, having delivered 10 wins, a draw and a defeat from his first 12 matches in charge, Guardiola ramped up his plans. He used a three-man defence, or a defence which would switch between three, four or even five men, depending on the opposition. He tried to run before he could walk.
“I believed we had it,” he said on Tuesday of that tricky Autumn period. “And they [the players] did not believe we had it.”
It took until the 4-2 thrashing at Leicester for him to realise that his more expansive systems would have to wait. A move to a stable back four has delivered six wins in nine games since then, as well as a pulsating 2-2 draw with Tottenham which provided a real glimpse of things to come.
He knows his side are deadly on the counter-attack or when they can attack space, thanks to the pace of forwards like Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, but that they struggle to break down packed defences. “The way we play, to build up from behind and put the team there [in attack] we have a lot of gap to improve. A lot.
“Our inconsistency is for that reason,” he adds.
Guardiola says Tottenham and Chelsea are the benchmarks for the English positional game, but that is what City are aiming towards - and lest it be forgotten the Blues were more than good enough to record convincing victories against both.
City brought in Guardiola to take them to the next level and that is what he fully intends to do.
If he can put the positional game in place, there will be no questions about the club’s direction. For that to happen, the mistakes of the past cannot be repeated, and the right players must be bought this summer. There will be a clear-out of the older players, and City’s refusal to panic buy in January suggests a more mature approach to recruitment. They have identified their summer targets and are working on those, not on short-term fixes.
City, as Guardiola puts it, need to "re-start", to pick up where they left off at the end of September. That will take time on the training pitch and, mainly, new signings, but the idea is not that they will go back to the blistering football from the start of the season, it is that they will be a far more dangerous prospect.
“Definitely, it will be better, I am pretty sure of that. I am pretty sure when we read what we have to do we will be better, we will be a better team.” The words may not jump off the page but they were delivered with conviction.
Little wonder Guardiola and his staff are planning to stay for the long-haul.
“If I had the feeling that everybody is [ready] it would be boring, so when I see the games and see the review of the games I say, ‘Wow, we still have a lot to do’, and that’s why it’s nice. Still I have the ambition. Unfinished business. Still I have many, many things to do.”
Are City really worse off than at this stage last season?