After watching their side beat Watford 2-0 in midweek, Manchester City fans will be forgiven for thinking that the footballing Gods are firmly against them these days.
Not only have they managed to go from the most entertaining, free-scoring team in the country to a side barely able to put a game to bed; not only have they managed to go from top of the table certainties to a battle for fourth; and not only have they managed to lose arguably their two most important players in a mass brawl after losing a game they should have won; but now, even in midweek victory, City are still taking the negatives: that is, Ilkay Gundogan left the pitch in tears after picking up an injury that could rule him out for months.
There’s something limp and sad about City at the moment, and it all seems to stem from something that City can’t really avoid for much longer. And that’s the formation of an identity. For too long, City’s identity hasn’t been apparent. They’ve never really been ‘for’ anything: nothing, that is, except they seem to be ‘for’ winning and ‘against’ somebody else winning.
Things are different these days. Pep Guardiola’s militancy in bringing in ball-playing footballers, the type who will run hard and press, sure, but whose main aim is to play a certain style of football at all costs, even if that cost is a conceded goal or three. It is maddening, it is frustrating, and given the resurgence of Manchester United and possibly even Tottenham, it might even see City drop out of the top four in the not too distant future.
Indeed, there may come a point in February, after their game against Arsenal this weekend and Liverpool on New Year’s Eve, that we might be talking about how City’s best route back into the Champions League next season is to win this year’s edition of Europe’s premier club competition.
City will eventually get it right. The whole point of the Pep project isn’t necessarily to win trophies, but to instil an identity into the first team and the wider club. To make all ages and genders play the same entertaining way. And that’s a great goal, a worthy achievement. But it might mean falling out of the Champions League for a year whilst they get it right. In fact, Guardiola may never get it right.
For the moment, City are looking down. Not up.