Gary Neville said, “It’s not right to watch them like that.” The Sky Sports The commentator was speaking during the final stages of the Derby on Saturday as Manchester City, like a long-standing offensive force under Pep Guardiola, attacked the forward harmlessly.
There were 86 minutes on the clock at Old Trafford at the time and City had only amassed one shot on goal. Manchester United did not do better, of course, but it was unusual to see this City team settling for a draw. “He’s not Pep Guardiola,” Neville added.
Perhaps this Old Trafford point will be of value at the end of the season. Manchester City had lost three of the previous four derbies, so Guardiola had reason to be cautious. But Manchester United were there for possession after being knocked out of the Champions League by RB Leipzig in the middle of the week.
And given that City already has the ground to replace Tottenham and Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table, it looks like two more points have been dropped than a single one.
The debate about Guardiola’s approach to the match is sure to continue, but what worries City is that Saturday’s performance was not the first to lack momentum and imagination recently. For the first time under the leadership of the Catalans, City are facing major offensive problems.
It’s unfamiliar territory for a team that has scored an average of 101 goals per season in their last three Premier League campaigns. Even last year, when they finished the season behind Liverpool by 19 points, they were just four goals below the record high of 106 they set two years ago.
City’s flaws under Guardiola – when there was anything at all – usually come at the other end of the field but not now.
Having ranked first among the Premier League teams for both goals scored and goals expected in each of the last three seasons, they are this time 10th and eighth in a row – albeit with a postponed match. City are not scoring enough goals and are not creating good enough chances either.
Burnley’s 5-0 defeat at the end of November suggested that they had rediscovered their groove, but Saturday’s goalless draw with United came after a modest 2-0 win over Fulham – a rival they would have previously beaten. . City have scored only 17 times in 11 Premier League matches.
Kevin De Bruyne continues to produce opportunities at a prolific rate. In fact, his average of 3.35 per 90 minutes this season puts him second only to Bruno Fernandez in the Premier League. But there are problems all around it. His frustration can be seen in the way he hinted to his team-mates about their lack of action against United.
Although De Bruyne is intelligent, he cannot do everything alone and he will find out. The Belgian has provided six assists in the Premier League this season, but no other City player has scored more than one. With David Silva gone and Guardiola not fully trusted in Phil Foden, the team’s creativity has suffered and there’s an even greater lack of cohesion and urgency as well.
“Even when they’ve suffered for the past 12 months or so, I’ve never seen them slow like this on the ball,” Neville said during the first half at Old Trafford. “[Guardiola] You watch her thinking, “That’s not what I want. That’s not how we play during the week in training.”
“It’s really basic. You usually see a lot of rotation, a lot of little fixtures, but it’s like watching any other team at this moment.”
It is a final issue as well as a creative one.
Ferran Torres did well in the cup competitions, scoring five goals in the Champions League and the Carabao Cup, but the top scorer in the Premier League after 11 games is Riyad Mahrez with four – and three of them came in one match.
Sergio Aguero has been sorely missed.
The Argentine, who underwent knee surgery in the summer, celebrated his return to the stadiums with a goal when he appeared as a substitute during Wednesday’s 3-0 Champions League win over Marseille, but illness made him not fit enough to play the match. The bench at Old Trafford.
Gabriel Jesus struggles to fill the void. The Brazilian scored in his first three games of the season – against Wolverhampton, Olympiacos and Liverpool – but is now goalless in six games. Against United, he grabbed his only chance, shooting high and wide from a pass by Mahrez in the first half. He hadn’t had another shot the whole evening.
Jesus was equally ineffective against Fulham, playing a full 90 minutes without scoring a single shot. In fact, he had only had four attempts on goal throughout the season in the Premier League and not one since the 1-1 draw with Liverpool in early November.
Guardiola hopes Aguero will return to full fitness to give City the edge he currently lacks in the opponent’s area. Especially as Raheem Sterling has been struggling to get close to his production from previous seasons. But it is a matter of creating opportunities as well as seizing them. Aguero’s absence has not helped, but it does not fully explain City’s recent troubles in the attack.
The challenge for Guardiola is to find a way to generate better chances to score as a team, without relying solely on De Bruyne. These are uncommon problems for a great attacking soccer coach. But if the Manchester City team wants to return to their previous heights, they must return to what they do better.
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