Manchester City: Points to ponder over the international break

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 19: Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City looks on during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Liverpool at Etihad Stadium on March 19, 2017 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 19: Josep Guardiola, Manager of Manchester City looks on during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Liverpool at Etihad Stadium on March 19, 2017 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) /

Manchester City’s attacking issues lie at the heart of a disappointing exit to Europe and two dropped points against Liverpool. Where can they go from here?

The international break is boring. There, I said it. It’s marginally interesting watching our favourite players wear different colours, under a different manager, chasing the ever-elusive zephyr of international acclaim but, honestly, many of us much rather watch them in their respective clubs instead.

Joe Hart having a blinder against Lithuania is nice and all, but your average Torino fan is probably not best pleased that it comes on the backdrop of the most goals conceded by goalkeeping errors, in Europe’s top five leagues, domestically.

For your average Manchester City fan, there’s the added dimension of an overwhelming desire to get back to winning ways. Dropping out of Europe to Monaco, 6-6 on aggregate, followed by a 1-1 draw to Liverpool in the league, both of which they should have won, make for an uneasy period of uncertainty.

Of course, the media too preys on the fears, repeating the same messages about City’s defensive errors and Sergio Aguero’s sudden, mystifying inability to hit the target from three feet away.

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Not only all that, but you’ve got transfer rumours flooding in earlier than ever. Of course, that’s partially the international break’s fault too, as the media are only too happy to feast on the starving masses of club, but not necessarily country, supporters. Neymar to United? Why not, let’s make it a price tag of about £200 million, sounds about right. As for Manchester City, well, they’ve been linked with just about every defender under the sun, so actually a few of them might be accurate if only by chance.

For Pep Guardiola’s side, the impetus really has to be at the other end however. City aren’t scoring. Or, rather, they are, but they aren’t scoring enough. That’s not for lack of chances created either, with an average 16 shots per game and even the slightly less impressive 5 on target, there’s more than enough to put just about any and every team away. The stats tell a story, but so do the eyes. The Blues have had the upper hand in almost every game against top opposition, but notably against Chelsea, Spurs and Stoke were let down by a chronic inability to take their chances.

Why? I’ve seen many reasons proposed. The first is that Pep’s style, tiki taka with short passes and movement, is somewhat akin to attempting to walk the ball into the net and falls too easily to the parked buses of the Premier League. While this seems good on paper, the reality is much different. Indeed, some 39% of all City’s attempts are from range and a further 53% from the 18 yard box.

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This is in line with almost every other top club in the game. While it’s true that Guardiola’s side command a dominating 61% possession overall, best in the league by a measure, this has if anything only contributed to City having more chances on goal than ever before, not less.

Others want to point fingers. Kun Aguero gets the lion’s share of the blame here, having a rather dismal conversion rate of 12% in the Premier League this year, his lowest on record. Of course, that only goes to show how important Sergio is to City, how deeply they rely on him, and how high the expectations of him are. I would argue that Aguero is making up for it by boasting much higher run rates and key pass rates, with a notably higher work rate on the whole. That appears to be what his manager is demanding of him and while his misses are becoming a concern, he missed what would have been the winner against Liverpool, his quality is there for all to see and isn’t diminished.

Ultimately, there could be truth in many of the arguments. It’s entirely possible that Pep’s style is a contributing factor as is the personnel, only not one or the other but both. These players, the majority of whom Pep inherited from his predecessor’s predecessor, aren’t used to his system yet and, while still struggling to adapt, the confidence is affected and misses start becoming habitual. This is why rather than simply a radical overhaul at the back, as the media and others predict, one may very well occur at the front as well.

Quite silently, City have become rather efficient at defending, with John Stones, Alex Kolarov and others starting to assert authority and Willy Cabellero keeping routine clean sheets. The problem is clearly up front.

One can argue, correctly too, that had Gabriel Jesus been fit then this wouldn’t be an issue. Indeed, Pep has argued as much himself. However I feel that Guardiola now sees the danger in throwing all his eggs in one Brazilian 19 year old’s basket, with a Manchester City squad that looks quite thin indeed once you scratch beneath the surface. In my mind, more goal makers will definitely be explored, the likes of Real Madrid’s Isco and Borussia Monchengladbach’s Mahmoud Dahoud who could easily rotate with David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne for max efficiency.

That may not be all however, as regardless of where Aguero’s future may lie, Guardiola may well opt for extra insurance and to bring in more recognised, polished goal scorers. Several names such as Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez and Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have been thrown about in the past, but, honestly, who knows?

Next: Will Chelsea sign Lukaku or Morata?

The bottom line is that Pep knows the problem, the focus of his system is to outscore the opponent and that simply isn’t happening, so changes are coming. If only thinking about such things were exciting enough to get us through the international break.