“It just doesn’t feel right watching them like this,” said Gary Neville. The Sky Sports pundit was speaking during the closing stages of Saturday’s derby as Manchester City, such a potent attacking force for so long under Pep Guardiola, shuffled harmlessly forward.
There were 86 minutes on the clock at Old Trafford at the time and City had mustered only one shot on target. Manchester United had fared no better, of course, but it was more unusual to see this City side settle for a draw. “It just isn’t Pep Guardiola,” added Neville.
Perhaps this point at Old Trafford will prove valuable come 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 the taking following their Champions League exit at the hands of RB Leipzig in midweek.
And given that City already have ground to make up on Tottenham and Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table, it looks more like two points dropped than one gained.
The debate over Guardiola’s approach to the game is sure to continue, but what’s most worrying for City is that Saturday’s performance wasn’t the first which has lacked impetus and imagination lately. For the first time under the Catalan, City have big issues in attack.
It is unfamiliar territory for a side that has averaged 101 goals per season in the last three Premier League campaigns. Even last year, when they finished 19 points behind Liverpool, they were only four goals short of the 106-goal record they set two years earlier.
City’s shortcomings under Guardiola – when there have even been any at all – have typically come at the other end of the pitch but not now.
Having ranked top among Premier League sides for both goals scored and expected goals in each of the last three seasons, this time around they sit joint-10th and eighth respectively – albeit with a game in hand. City are not scoring enough goals and they are not creating good enough chances either.
The 5-0 thrashing of Burnley at the end of November hinted that they had rediscovered their groove, but Saturday’s goalless draw with United came after a modest 2-0 win over relegation-battlers Fulham – the kind of opponent they would previously have blown away. City have only scored 17 times in 11 Premier League games in total.
Kevin de Bruyne is still producing chances at a prolific rate. In fact, his average of 3.35 per 90 minutes this season puts him second only to Bruno Fernandes in the Premier League. But there are problems all around him. His frustration could be seen in the way he gesticulated at his team-mates about their lack of movement against United.
As brilliant as de Bruyne is, he can’t do it all on his own and City are finding that out. The Belgian has produced six assists in the Premier League this season, but no other City player has registered more than one. With David Silva gone and Phil Foden not yet fully trusted by Guardiola, the side’s creativity has suffered and there is a broader lack of cohesion and urgency too.
“Even when they’ve struggled in the last 12 months or so, I’ve not seen them as sluggish as this on the ball,” said Neville during the first half at Old Trafford. “[Guardiola] be watching it thinking, ‘This is not what I want. This is not how we play during the week in training.’
“It’s really basic. You usually see loads of rotation, lots of little combinations, but it’s like watching any other team at this moment in time.”
It is a finishing issue as well as a creativity one.
Ferran Torres has fared well in the cup competitions, scoring five times in the Champions League and Carabao Cup, but their top scorer in the Premier League after 11 fixtures is Riyad Mahrez with four – and three of those came in one game.
Sergio Aguero has been sorely missed.
The Argentine, who underwent knee surgery in the summer, marked his return to action with a goal when he came on as a substitute during Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Marseille in the Champions League, but illness meant he was not even fit enough for the bench at Old Trafford.
Gabriel Jesus is struggling to fill the void. The Brazilian scored in his first three appearances of the season – against Wolves, Olympiakos and Liverpool – but he is now without a goal in six. Against United, he snatched at his only chance, volleying high and wide from Mahrez’s pass in the first half. He didn’t have another shot all evening.
Jesus was similarly ineffectual against Fulham, playing the full 90 minutes without registering a single shot. In fact, he has only had four efforts on target all season in the Premier League and not a single one since the 1-1 draw with Liverpool in early November.
Guardiola will hope Aguero’s return to full fitness gives City the edge they currently lack in the opposition box. Especially with Raheem Sterling struggling to get anywhere near his output from previous seasons. But it is a question of creating chances as well as taking them. Aguero’s absence hasn’t helped, but it doesn’t fully explain City’s recent issues in attack.
The challenge for Guardiola is to find a way to generate better scoring opportunities as a team, without relying solely on De Bruyne. These are unfamiliar problems for one of football’s great attacking coaches. But if his Manchester City side are to return to their previous heights, they must get back to what they do best.