Less than a fortnight ago, the day after Manchester City’s 5-0 demolition of West Ham United away from home in the FA Cup, the Sun produced one of the more inspired back pages of the season in honour of the performance. “MC Hammer!” the main headline screamed, accompanied by a picture of David Silva complete with speech bubble reading: “You can’t touch this.”
It all seemed completely in order. Pep Guardiola’s side had just made the most emphatic of statements to restore some of the belief that went missing in the new year fixtures, when defeat at Anfield was followed by the various controversies surrounding the narrow win against Burnley. A manager who had been sourly defensive in a television interview after the latter was now all smiles and sunny confidence, promising his side would be all the better for the luxury of a full week to prepare for their next game at Everton.
As you may have heard, that plan did not go as well as might have been expected. Everton were pretty good, thoroughly deserving of their 4-0 win, but City were woeful again, failing in at least three major departments and ending up barely recognisable as the side who trounced West Ham. First, they failed to take advantage in the period in the first half when they were on top, missing two or three decent chances to open the scoring. That can happen to anyone but City need to work out why Sergio Agüero is not getting on the end of more of their best chances. He is the best finisher at the club by a mile and the sight of Silva or Raheem Sterling squandering presentable opportunities only reinforces the fact.
Second, wet paper bags have offered more resistance than the City backline in recent weeks. When Romelu Lukaku opened the scoring it was Everton’s first attempt on target and it went in, a pattern that has become established in previous games, not least when the same player did the same thing to City at the Etihad. It is not all Claudio Bravo’s fault, although a compilation of the goalkeeper’s greatest saves this season would be on the short side, but when City make a mistake in defence it often leads to them being opened up completely. Unchallenged near the penalty spot, Lukaku could not miss.
Third, City heads tend to drop when they go behind. That did not happen immediately after Lukaku’s goal, though it did when Kevin Mirallas added a second at the start of the second half. It is not quite true there is no character or fight in the squad – City came from a goal behind to beat Arsenal in December – but they were never close to pulling themselves back into the game at Goodison and by the end they looked as though they could not wait to get off the pitch.
Guardiola was asked the usual question about whether title hopes had disappeared and for the first time he mumbled that they might have. It was an unnecessary point to make anyway, he seemed to feel. Champion teams do not fall to four-goal defeats in such a shambolic manner, certainly not to opponents outside the top six with little else to play for other than seventh position.
And so the story moves on to City’s next top-six encounter, which happens to be this Saturday at home to Tottenham Hotspur, who happen to be on a six-match winning run. Lots of top-six teams seem to have put together long sequences of wins this season (even Manchester United managed it until being held by Liverpool at the weekend) but City’s own six-match winning sequence in the league – right at the start of the season in case you are having difficulty recalling it – was ended by Spurs with a workmanlike 2-0 victory at White Hart Lane at the beginning of October.
It is tempting to suggest City have not been the same since, though that would barely cover their wild fluctuations in form and efficiency. They have certainly not managed the same consistency. The best run they have put together is three successive wins in December, one of which was against Arsenal, though that mini-recovery was in response to their dreadful performance in losing 4-2 at Leicester City, not to mention several of their players losing their heads in defeat by Chelsea the previous week. Guardiola must be struggling like everyone else to make sense of City’s season. On the one hand a side who can beat Barcelona must be doing something right, yet there is always the sneaking suspicion Barcelona are the one team Guardiola ought to know how to beat, 4-0 hiding at the Camp Nou notwithstanding. It is teams such as Leicester and Everton, Middlesbrough and Southampton that Guardiola has lost ground against this season.
Spurs have had their wobbles too but Mauricio Pochettino has been sounding more and more bullish about the league since going out of the Champions League, and with good reason. Spurs were the side who ended Chelsea’s attempt at a record sequence of wins, after all, and since then they have been on a run of their own. Their six successive victories have been put together by scoring 19 goals and conceding three. The last stat is possibly more important than the first.
Spurs can defend. They can keep a clean sheet against a side as strong as Chelsea and they can hang on to leads once they have gone in front. They will be no pushover at the Etihad, though at this stage no one has a clue which version of City they will be up against. Will it be the side picked off so professionally by Chelsea, or the one who kept their composure when going a goal down to Arsenal? The one thing that can be said is the Etihad has not been quite the fortress City fans would wish in recent seasons; it is not an arena that seems to inhibit title rivals or top-six opponents.
The Guardian Sport