Manchester City began 2017 in the best way possible on Monday when they overcame battling Burnley in a 2-1 victory at the Etihad Stadium.
Pep Guardiola’s side were forced to play the last hour of their second game in two days with ten men after Fernandinho was dismissed for a reckless tackle in the first half. Despite that, they managed to secure their third win from their last four matches and keep themselves just about in contention for the Premier League title.
Happy days then? Well no, not exactly. The mood around the club is rather dour at the moment and in many ways, the frustration and disappointment being expressed by those in the stands is perfectly understandable. City may have been picking up points in the main but you’d probably have to go back as far as the Champions League victory over Barcelona in early November for the last time they were truly at the peak of their powers and it’s left us all wondering what on earth has happened to the team that looked like it’d walk the league at the beginning of the season?
Those first 10 games aside, the Blues have been thoroughly unconvincing at both ends of the pitch and at this moment in time, it feels incredibly unlikely that they’ll be able to rediscover the kind of form they’ll need if they’re somehow going to catch Chelsea and lift the title in May. The failure to adequately bolster the defence in the summer is an oversight which seems to come back and bite them on the backside in every single match and though replacing Joe Hart with a new goalkeeper may not have been the worst idea in the world, replacing him with Claudio Bravo looks increasingly like it was far from the best piece of recruitment Txiki Begiristain has ever pulled off.
But while City’s defence is perhaps their most pressing concern, their wastefulness in front of goal has arguably cost them more points this season. Sergio Aguero’s magnificent goal from a tight angle on Monday was his 14th of the season but he could and probably should have had even more by now, especially if he hadn’t missed seven games through suspension. Kelechi Iheanacho’s goal at Hull made him statistically the most prolific Premier League player ever at the time but he still looks inexperienced and unconvincing when trusted to start. Had City been able to convert draws at home with the likes of Everton, Southampton and Middlesbrough into wins, their position in the table would be an awful lot healthier going into the second half of the season, but they didn’t and it isn’t.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this on Pep Guardiola’s watch, or at least we never imagined it’d be like this back in August and September when City were sitting pretty at the top of the league and rattling goals in left, right and centre. Many of us half expected the Catalan’s first season in English football to be far from plain sailing but the scintillating start he made to life in Manchester warped everything and the subsequent and dramatic regression has therefore been extremely disappointing. At the moment, his team looks eerily reminiscent of the side we grew sick to death of watching under Manuel Pellegrini last season (particularly in the traditional pathetic showing at Anfield last week) but they could very well end this one with even less to show for it.
That said, Guardiola is still at most just one sixth of the way through his work in progress here and he deserves a lot more patience than he’s so far been granted by many City fans and the wider football world. The atmosphere during large parts of Monday’s game at the Etihad suggested most of the Blues’ faithful were either still suffering from New Year’s Eve hangovers or having a bit of a sulk and Guardiola had every right to request a little bit more from his supporters at the start of the second half.
A rather quiet stadium is not unique to City but Pep is probably used to having a more vocal 12th man on his side and you only have to look at the atmosphere generated at Celtic Park or traditionally hostile English grounds such as Anfield and Goodison Park to see exactly how it can help drive the home team forward.
Of course, City’s less-than-impressive season isn’t solely down to the fans not chanting loud enough and nobody will be more aware of that than Pep Guardiola. He’s a renowned perfectionist and his team’s lacklustre performances will no doubt be eating away at him day and night, which might go some way towards explaining the frostiness he exhibited towards the media following the Burnley match.
Guardiola is generally pretty buoyant in the aftermath of a game, regardless of the result, and the cob he had on after a hard fought victory over in-form opposition was odd but also quite understandable. Being a well-paid football manager is hardly the worst job in the world but when you’ve just been involved in a tiring and emotionally draining match and you have to go down the tunnel and immediately give an almost identical television interview two or three times before going into a press conference to be asked the exact same questions all over again, it’s bound to take its toll on your patience from time to time.
Just ask Jurgen Klopp.
Here's a little teaser!
Click the link in the video or in the previous tweet for the full thing! pic.twitter.com/USWOdrTN0R
— BeanymanSports (@BeanymanSports) January 2, 2017
Guardiola’s relationship with the press in Spain and Germany was a lot more antagonistic than it is in this country and he seems to have brought with him a degree of suspicion towards journalists in general. And who can really blame him? Every question he’s asked in every interview or press conference is designed to provoke some sort of reaction or insight, particularly when it comes to contentious refereeing decisions. A manager knows full well that he risks an FA rap by criticising a referee after a game but if he bats the question away or refuses to comment at all, he’s accused of being classless or disrespectful. He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, yet next time a City player is controversially sent off or a controversial goal is given against them, Pep will be asked the same old baiting questions by the same old ignorance-feigning reporters.
Often, refusing to answer a question or giving it a short shrift isn’t enough to prevent further interrogation either. Just watch the interview with the BBC’s Damian Johnson after Monday’s match.
"Pep, you don't seem happy that you've won?" How awkward is this? pic.twitter.com/JPXfIOBdKF
— Match of the Day (@BBCMOTD) January 2, 2017
“You don’t seem happy that you’ve won,” says Johnson.
“More than you believe,” replies Guardiola.
“You aren’t showing it,” Detective Chief Inspector Johnson of the Happiness Police shoots back.
“I’m so happy, believe me. Happy New Year,” says Guardiola, an answer which finally seems to convince DCI Johnson that he’s not guilty of the heinous crime of not being absolutely delighted at all times.
Both this interview and the similarly awkward one Guardiola gave to Sky Sports have spawned a great deal of hand-wringing from many media professionals yet the irony is, those videos generated far more intrigue, comment and website traffic than those given by any other Premier League manager on Monday so if anything, they should be thanking him and hoping he has a bee in his bonnet every week.
Of course, football journalists aren’t all evil and vindictive. The nature of their job means they have to ask the questions they do because they have stories to write and newspapers to fill and they wouldn’t last long in a cut-throat industry if they didn’t. It sometimes feels as though what football players and managers say is more important than the actual football itself and that sort of arrangement is bound to create tension somewhere along the line, especially when it comes to someone like Guardiola who has always preferred to let his football do the talking.
Guardiola has made mistakes this season and maybe his handling of the media on Monday was one of them, but it’s a shame it’s been allowed to overshadow what was a much needed three points for a team who haven’t shown that level of resilience nearly often enough in recent years. With that sort of combativeness and their fans behind them all the way, who knows? They might just achieve something special this season after all.
Happy New Year and cheer up, will you? It might never happen.
Written by Dan Burke
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