In a week in which they found themselves in hot water for falling foul of the FA’s anti-doping regulations and were left red-faced by their inability to have Gabriel Jesus’ registration completed in time for him to make his long-awaited debut, it was rather fitting that Manchester City saved their biggest humiliation ‘til last.
Pep Guardiola’s side were an utter shambles in the 4-0 defeat at Everton on Sunday and their long-suffering supporters will have awoken on Monday – Blue Monday, no less – with an all-too-familiar feeling of dread. City’s Premier League title challenge isn’t stone dead just yet but somewhere, a priest is preparing to read its last rites. If they don’t win at home to Tottenham Hotspur next weekend, it’ll probably be time to start shopping for headstones.
In many ways, City’s performance (a rather comical word in this context) at Goodison Park was a microcosm of their season so far. They started brightly and it looked like it’d only be a matter of time before they swept the hosts aside in a similar fashion to the 5-0 win at West Ham last week. A penalty could and probably should have been given for Everton goalkeeper Joel Robles’ trip on Raheem Sterling and David Silva wasted a great chance to open the scoring when he’d been played in superbly by Kevin De Bruyne. So far, so good.
And then, in the 34th minute, Romelu Lukaku put Everton in front with their first shot on goal and it all went downhill from there.
In four of their last seven Premier League games, Manchester City have conceded with the first shot they've faced. [Opta]
— Sam Lee (@Sammy_Goal) 15 January 2017
Guardiola asked why #mcfc so often concede to first shot they face: "I would like to know."
— Simon Bajkowski (@spbajko) 15 January 2017
If Guardiola really doesn’t know the answer to that question, he needn’t look much further than the man he brought in to be his number one goalkeeper in the summer.
“If we scored the two or three goals in the first half, and we got what we deserved to achieve and you score the goals, the consistency would be great, would be good,” the Catalan told the media after the game.
“So it would be a huge mistake to blame for one person, one line the reason why but of course it is the first time in my life I concede a lot of goals, it never happened before and that’s why I have to know the reason why.”
Sadly, Guardiola is of course correct in that City’s problems run much deeper than Claudio Bravo at the moment. Their failure to put the ball in the net when they should have done has been just as costly as the goals they’ve conceded this season but right now, they can’t even afford to allow their opponents to have a shot at their goal because, more often than not, it’s going to go in.
Out of the last 22 shots Bravo has faced, 14 have ended up as goals.
— Phil McNulty (@philmcnulty) January 16, 2017
City’s defending was as poor as it’s been all season for the four goals they conceded at Goodison Park but the goalkeeper behind them seldom, if ever, comes to their rescue and his place in the team is becoming untenable. Bravo was brought in to replace Joe Hart in the summer because of his superior kicking ability and though he undoubtedly represents an upgrade in that respect, the rest and most important part of his game leaves a lot to be desired and a lot of us wondering whether things might have panned out differently if Guardiola had just stuck with the perfectly fine goalkeeper he already had.
Bravo is not a fundamentally bad goalkeeper – he wouldn’t have had the career he’s had if he was – but he’s in poor form and his confidence is on the floor at the moment. He can’t be expected to save every shot he faces, nor come out on top in most one-on-one situations, but for at least two of Everton’s goals on Sunday, he actually made himself small – the complete opposite of what you’d expect a top class keeper to do in that situation.
At this level, City can’t afford to be carrying anyone, especially when that someone is the last line of their defence. For better or for worse, Guardiola made a big decision when he swapped Bravo for Hart and now he must either live with it or make an even bigger one. There isn’t the time to wait for Bravo to play himself into some sort of form and if Guardiola has anything about him, he’ll be asking his Director of Football to find him a new goalkeeper before the transfer window closes. In the meantime, he could do a lot worse than putting Willy Caballero in. That’s how desperate a situation this is.
Whether he will or not remains to be seen and unfortunately, a change of goalkeeper won’t magically solve all of City’s problems overnight anyway. Vincent Kompany’s imminent return might stop them defending so chaotically but “for how long?” is a question to which we probably won’t have to wait too long for an answer.
Gabriel Jesus might bring goals to the team once he’s finally cleared to play but it’d be foolish to expect too much, too young from him. On Sunday, Everton were comfortably able to shut the game down at 2-0 and City never even looked like knocking on the door, let alone picking the lock and getting back into the game. That’s been a big issue for a while now, and one Guardiola doesn’t appear to be getting any closer to rectifying.
Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal all celebrated big wins at the weekend while Liverpool and Manchester United can both be pleased with the way they performed in the draw at Old Trafford. City needed a big result at Goodison Park yet they were thoroughly embarrassed by an Everton side who’ve been far worse than their league position suggests this season. The Blues are now clinging onto their place in the title race by a thread and you’d be a fool to even bet on them finishing in the top four the way things are going. Guardiola doesn’t have a perfect squad but he still has a very good one and for a club with City’s resources, days like Sunday are totally unacceptable.
Contrary to popular opinion, however, Pep Guardiola hasn’t failed yet. He still has time to turn the ship around in the league this season (although admittedly, it’s rapidly running out) and the Champions League and the FA Cup will both provide him with opportunities to salvage some pride from his first season in English football. Even if he wins nothing and City finish 5th this season, he’ll have at least another two years to redeem himself so it’s still very early to be jumping to any conclusions where he’s concerned.
It’s easy to forget, in moments like this, that City have been very, very good at times since Pep came through the door and though their improvement in terms of points gained and all-round performance on last season has only been marginal, it’s been an improvement nonetheless. It won’t come as a major surprise if they pull a big performance out of the bag and beat Spurs at the weekend, although absolutely nobody with any sense should be putting any money on that.
No one, least of all Guardiola, thought this season would be a cakewalk but the most disappointing aspect of his tenure so far has been how ridiculously easy to beat City still are. We expected great things from Pep, and he might still deliver them, but right now competence on a consistent basis would come as a welcome relief.
That really isn’t a lot to ask, is it?
Written by Dan Burke
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