Manchester City spent £200m to get worse – but that doesn’t mean they won’t win the title

Mikel Arteta was hardly controversial. Many others have expressed similar sentiments, although they have rarely prevented Pep Guardiola’s side from scoring in two league games in a season. “They are the best team in the world by far,” he said.

That’s Manchester City’s reputation, if not its status. A stalemate left Guardiola announcing that they were only third choice to win the title. And if a repeat treble remains on the cards, City have reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and entered the final without beating their elite opponents in either competition.

The best part by far? They were last year, ousting Arsenal twice in the Premier League, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in the Champions League. But now Guardiola is joking that he had to “kill someone” to get through a low block.

But is it better now? City have four points from a possible 18 against their nearest rivals, the rest in the top five. They haven’t hit any of them. Last season, they took 16 points out of 24 against top five opponents, winning five times. “Four points compared to 16; it’s a big difference,” said Guardiola.

Memory, he argued, can play tricks. “You think it’s 7-0 every week for six years,” he said. Was not. But there were many statement results, inflated victories, illustrations of excellence to discourage their followers. It was not usual for City to go into April without such a result.

But then City are not as good as they were. It is camouflaged by running 23 games unbeaten, overlooked among the assumption that they will win everything, disguised in part by the injuries that caused the intimidation of less line-ups Guardiola fielded.

And maybe it would be different if John Stones was fit to slip between the lines and add another dimension. His role this season is the reason they often lacked the chemistry they displayed last spring. Another thing was the absence of Kevin de Bruyne for the first half of the season. The departure of Ilkay Gundogan is the third part: the former captain feels the solution to every problem, whether as metronome, creator, scorer, big-game talisman. But the loss of Riyad Mahrez, who was directly involved in last season’s 28 goals, saw them produce another game winner. Between them, Jack Grealish, Jeremy Doku, Matheus Nunes and Mateo Kovacic have scored or assisted 24 this year.

Man City failed to find the inspiration to break down Arsenal's defense (Getty Images)

Man City failed to find the inspiration to break down Arsenal’s defense (Getty Images)

If the latter pair were designed more to replace Gundogan than Mahrez, the verdict may be that City, fine traders in recent years, have had their worst season in the transfer market since Eliaquim Mangala and Wilfried Bony were bought in 2014 -15, they spent. £200m to deteriorate.

It could be argued that only one of their signings, Kovacic, is their strongest side. The thought-provoking £50m Nunes has been given just 44 minutes against the top six this season. Doku is the maverick, but rarely wins the game. Josko Gvardiol claimed two defensive injuries to start against Arsenal.

The theory is that winners should strengthen even when they are strongest; it’s not always true – Liverpool didn’t buy any senior players after winning the 2019 Champions League – and if it’s hard to improve on perfection, it’s almost impossible to find another Gundogan, once City paid to go worse.

Not that it should be attributed to all signatures. Perhaps it is a consequence of the heights they reached last season, but many of them have fallen this year. Maybe Phil Foden is just having a much better year; Julian Alvarez may be, in part accumulating a large number of minutes, but the World Cup winner will not exude class. Rodri and Nathan Ake were excellent again.

But it is perhaps in Grealish that the fallout is greatest, even with the sense that he is tactically important which means that City are a better team when he is playing. But his lack of goals is a problem when there is no Mahrez or Gundogan to compensate.

Jack Grealish came on as a sub against Arsenal (Getty Images)Jack Grealish came on as a sub against Arsenal (Getty Images)

Jack Grealish came on as a sub against Arsenal (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, it may seem hypercritical to fault Erling Haaland’s scoring record: he has missed two months of the season and has just one goal in 30 in all competitions. But he is reinforced by the days when he goes astray, as shown by five goals at Luton. His Premier League record of 36 in a campaign looks more impressive, but he now has just four in his last 11 outings. He only hit once against the rest of the top five.

As City had only one shot against Arsenal, the vast number they collected were passes instead: around 689, 420 more than the Gunners. But it was without the incision that turned him into a target.

That leaves the clubs undefeated in the Champions League; between Arteta’s suggestion the gulf separates them from every other team on the planet and Guardiola’s claim Liverpool and Arsenal have a better chance of winning the title. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. But even if City do the best, they look less than last year.

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