12 games, 10 wins, one draw and just one defeat. You’d have taken that at the start of the season, wouldn’t you?
Nevertheless, City fans had very nearly forgotten what losing felt like and Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at White Hart Lane came, to many of us, as a rude awakening from the most wonderful dream.
For weeks, all we’ve heard is people telling us how brilliant we are, how many records we’re going to break, how we’ve pretty much got the league title sewn up already and you can’t really blame us if we began to believe our own hype. But even Pep Guardiola, talented though he is, can’t defy the laws of gravity and the higher you soar, the further you have to fall.
Perhaps next time, it’d be sensible to wait until at least March or April before predicting that a City team, or any team for that matter, “could go the whole season unbeaten”? Just a suggestion.
And anyway, Pep wanted to lose, didn’t he? “Losing is necessary to improve, to get better,” was what he said after sealing his 10th win in a row at Swansea and he was probably so sick to death of winning all the time that he lost on purpose at Spurs. I mean, how else do you explain his decision to pick Fernando?
Being philosophical in defeat can often seem like a disingenuous attempt to disguise your true disappointment, like the proverbial teenage boy who swears he didn’t fancy the girl that spurned his advances anyway. Nobody ever wants to lose, of course they don’t, but whether there’s disingenuity behind Pep’s pontificating or not, it’s difficult not to feel like Sunday’s reality check came at the perfect time for City.
Cast your mind back to the start of the season and there was a general sense of anticipation mixed with apprehension surrounding the advent of the Guardiola era. We knew he was good but we weren’t sure how good. Maybe he’d be an instant success in English football but it seemed more likely that it’d take him a bit of time to adapt to the Premier League and for his new players to adapt to him.
But then City exceeded our wildest expectations by winning 10 matches in a row and we all got a bit carried away with ourselves. It didn’t matter that we needed a Paddy McNair own goal to beat Sunderland on the opening day, or that we had to cling on for dear life in the second half at Old Trafford, or that we’d looked rather ordinary in both fixtures at Swansea, because when the goals were rattling in against Bournemouth and Borussia Mönchengladbach, we felt unstoppable.
And we had every right to be giddy. After all, if you can’t get excited when your team’s doing well, what’s the point in being a football fan? A sense of perspective never goes amiss though, and with every victory our ambitions became more and more grandiose, and amidst all the talk of invincibility and quadruples, we seemed to lose sight of the fact that this is still Pep’s “bedding-in period” and it was never supposed to go this well.
One man who managed to keep his head while all about him were losing theirs was Guardiola himself. The Catalan swore at a journalist for daring to ask him whether he was targeting a clean sweep of all four available trophies in his first season in English football a few weeks ago and he’s done nothing but play down the start he’s made to life in Manchester at every opportunity. He’ll no doubt be pleased with how things have gone so far, but he’s wise enough to know that there’s a long, long way to go yet.
Even Pep might have inadvertently lulled himself into falsely thinking he’d got it all worked out, though. It would explain why his team were taken by surprise by Celtic’s energy in the Champions League last week and it would also explain why he picked a side which, in hindsight at least, was ill-equipped to handle Tottenham’s high intensity pressing at the weekend. Why alter a winning formula? Because complacency is the enemy of progress, that’s why.
But that’s not to say Guardiola’s team have been “found out” in the last couple of matches, far from it. Celtic and Spurs both executed their strategies to perfection against City sides who were weary and off-colour and the way they buckled under the pressure on both occasions was cause for concern. These are still early days, however, and if getting in his face is how you beat Guardiola at this moment in time, sooner or later he’ll work out a way to reach around and pick your pocket. He didn’t get this far by being predictable.
The October international break has had a habit of halting momentum in the past but it comes as a welcome relief to City this time around and feels like a perfect opportunity to take stock and reflect upon the Premier League season’s opening act.
It’s perhaps a slightly clichéd way of looking at things, but Guardiola will have learnt more about his team in that 90 minutes at White Hart Lane than he did in any of the victories which preceded it. He’ll now have a better understanding of what works in certain situations and what doesn’t and who, in terms of his personnel, he can trust and and who he possibly can’t.
“They have permission to play awful,” was what he said about his players after the win at Swansea and although they appeared to take his words a bit too literally on Sunday, he’s absolutely right. Even the best players have off-days and even the best managers make mistakes. The important thing is that they bounce back and learn from the experience and they have a fortnight until Everton visit the Etihad Stadium to do exactly that.
City will play badly and lose again this season, there’s absolutely no doubt about it. The Premier League is arguably the most competitive league in the world and though there will be many days on which they’ll stroll to victory, there will be others where they’ll struggle or have to grind it out. In reality, they are probably neither as good as they’ve appeared on their best days this season, nor as bad as they were against Spurs. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle.
Going a whole season unbeaten isn’t the barometer of a good team and it’s an expectation which seems to become more and more unrealistic with each passing year. In the 25-year history of the Premier League, the average number of defeats you’ve been able to win the title with is between four and five. Last season, Manuel Pellegrini’s side lost 10 times in the league. If Pep can slash that figure in half this time around, his team will be in with a shout.
All in all, we shouldn’t forget that City have made an excellent start to the season and deservedly sit atop the table (albeit now by only one point). If they’re still top of the league after 38 games, we’ll be able to declare them the best team in the country with absolute certainty. Anything anybody says between now and then is academic.
Written by Dan Burke
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