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Smells like trouble: Man City risk returning to Guardiola's poor first season form

09:00 BST 04/10/2020
Pep Guardiola Manchester City
The Blues are eight points off the top of the Premier League having played only three matches, with their latest fumble a 1-1 draw at Leeds

With no clean sheets from their opening three matches, Manchester City could be eight points behind Liverpool going into the first international break.

Last season, Jurgen Klopp’s side never made a misstep in the first few months of the season and the title race was effectively over before Christmas.

The early, alarming signs suggest a repeat performance in Pep Guardiola’s final year in charge.

The fear factor has diminished. Opponents no longer wait to be brushed aside by the brilliant, unstoppable football that brought City two Premier League titles with record points totals.

Worse than that, City are now worryingly more reminiscent of the side that struggled in Guardiola’s first season at the Etihad Stadium when confidence and belief trickled away when they were put under sustained attacking pressure.

The City boss remains calm about a start that his seen his squad depleted by illness and injury after an almost non-existent pre-season due to the various impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But there were warning signs post-lockdown, when they lost key matches - Arsenal in the FA Cup and Lyon in the Champions League - and those alerts remain in the early weeks of this season even if Guardiola remains sanguine about the situation.

“I am not thinking after three games about 'are we going to win the league?', Guardiola said after the 1-1 draw with Leeds.

“I am more than satisfied with what they have done so far.” 

“We need to settle a few things, we are still a little bit away from our best. I know how tough this league is and our opponents don't drop much.

“Today was completely different to Leicester. We lost control of that game but today we were there all the game. I am so proud of these players.”

While they didn’t suffer a repeat of last week’s drubbing by Leicester - when Guardiola conceded five goals for the first time as a coach - they still looked fragile.

City have now conceded 14 shots on target in their last two games, more than any other team in the top division during that time.

There were at least encouraging signs about the central defensive pairing of Aymeric Laporte and new signing Ruben Dias, who had a solid, trouble-free debut and was even close to an early goal.

But throughout the rest of the team, Leeds were able to open up the same wounds that Leicester had, exploiting the lack of defensive alertness of full-backs Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy and bypassing the midfield with speed and sharp passing.

Mendy, in particular, had another difficult night and, with a yellow card, had to be hauled off as he toiled to stop former City Academy player Ian Poveda.

With less than 48 hours in the transfer window, a late move to bring in an alternative seems a must with no other alternative left-backs at the club, but they must first sell before they can buy.

The danger signs don’t stop there.

Against both Leicester and Leeds, City started impressively but still without injured strikers Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, they failed to kill the game off.

Failing to take chances - they had 23 shots against Leeds and just two on target - is another hangover from last season that they seem incapable of curing.

“We had really good moments in the first 30 minutes that we could make a bigger margin in our result,” Guardiola said.

“[Leeds] are an incredible team, a fantastic team that destroyed the Championship last season. But the last 11 minutes we were there trying to win.”

Confidence seems to ebb away from City just as it did in Guardiola’s first campaign when he was trying to establish the philosophy of his high-line and attacking football.

Then, the tactics were successful only until they were put under pressure and their resilience withered. A similar pattern is starting to develop.

Newly-promoted Leeds had more possession, more passes and more touches than City at Elland Road as Marcelo Bielsa beat Guardiola at his own game.

It wasn't until Fernandinho came on in the 77th minute that City wrestled back some control of a chaotic match and looked the more likely to take the three points.

Bielsa versus Guardiola had whetted the appetite before the match as a feast of attacking football and both managers seemed happy to serve up entertainment rather than stifle the fun. But City footed the bill, dropping another two points.

"Of course we are far away from the top of the league, we need to start to win games," Guardiola said. "It's a marathon, and with Champions League games, all the teams have this situation.

"Society gives credit for the winners. It's like perfume: when you win, you smell so good. When you don't, you smell so bad."

City fans are hoping it doesn’t smell like trouble.