Pep Guardiola’s rare transfer mistakes are getting worse as Manchester City lose a key duo

Riyad Mahrez (left) and Ilkay Gundogan left Man City last summer after winning the Treble – Getty Images/Visionhaus

Manchester City are third in the Premier League, with Pep Guardiola admitting they are no longer favorites for a fourth successive league title. They have scored fewer goals than Liverpool and conceded more than Arsenal. They have won none of their four games against the two title rivals, and just one of five home games against the traditional ‘big six’. Unlike each of the last six seasons, City do not boast the league’s best goal difference, a distinction held by Arsenal.

City’s side may still be the best – another Treble is still possible after all – but they have not produced their best with their usual relentless regularity. They pass like City and they are more like City but something is missing, especially at the end of the pitch.

Some of this can be traced back to an uncharacteristic imprecision in the transfer market. Just as City’s clockwork football under Guardiola is nearing perfection, so the club has moved efficiently in recruiting players. They had enormous wealth at their disposal, but City were forensic in their choice of goals and for a long time they hardly missed a step.

That clarity of vision and that enviable success rate have grown ever so slightly. Guardiola has sought to refresh his central midfield options in each of the past two summers, windows that have seen prime talent such as Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice move elsewhere.

Since 2022, City have spent £125 million on Kalvin Phillips, Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes. A spell at Phillips City was a blowout for the club and the player, and he is currently on loan at West Ham United. Kovacic is a high-grade continuity player, but he cannot replace the scoring offered by the departed Ilkay Gundogan. Nunes’ ball-carrying is a talent, but he doesn’t look a clean style suited to City and he doesn’t trust his elite opponents. City still rely on 32-year-old Kevin De Bruyne for goals and creativity from midfield.

Pep Guardiola's rare transfer mistakes are getting worse as Manchester City lose a key duoPep Guardiola's rare transfer mistakes are getting worse as Manchester City lose a key duo

Kevin De Bruyne has had an injury-plagued season – Reuters/Lee Smith

On the wings, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Cole Palmer have all been sold from the summer of 2022. Jack Grealish was an important player during the Treble campaign, offering control around Erling Haaland, but whether he has proven value at £ 100 million is an open question. Jeremy Doku can be a match winner but is erratic around the penalty area. It feels at the moment like neither winger is Guardiola’s Goldilocks choice.

With the departure of Mahrez and Gundogan last summer, City lost two reliable sources of goal contributions, who have not been directly replaced. Mahrez has provided 15 league goals in each of City’s last three winning campaigns. Gundogan has almost matched Mahrez, with 39 goals scored over the past three league seasons. A scoring streak at the end of last season saw Gundogan score both goals in a 2-1 win over Leeds, the first two goals in a 3-0 win over Everton and both goals in the FA Cup final against Manchester United.

Kovacic, apparently Gundogan’s replacement, has zero goals and zero assists in a league. Doku has two league goals and five goals, but four of those came in one game against Bournemouth in November. De Bruyne was unable to hit his usual tally after missing half the season with a hamstring injury. Bernardo Silva’s six goals and four assists are a good result, while Phil Foden enjoyed his most impressive return to date with 11 goals and seven assists. Julian Alvarez has eight league goals and seven assists, but only two of those goals have come since the start of the year. Both were against Burnley.

Where City’s attack was once a rotating team, it is now defined by Haaland, the world’s leading goalscorer. But for the first time since his first season at Borussia Dortmund in 2019-2020, Haaland is underperforming his expected goals, scoring fewer goals than you’d expect from the quality of chances he’s had. He has missed a period due to injury, but Haaland is not halfway to last year’s extraordinary tally of 36 league goals. Haaland’s relative terror in front of the goalkeeper could be the difference between home games against Spurs, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, or victory.

Balancing the team around Haaland, De Bruyne and Foden – City’s three most powerful attackers – while maintaining his desired control of possession and opposition counter-attacks has also been a challenge for Guardiola. De Bruyne hooked for Kovacic during a helter-skelter second half at Anfield in an attempt to restore order. Foden was shunted to the left to accommodate Kovacic against Arsenal, but was marginal in City’s lackluster performance. Sterile possession has also been a theme of City’s season. Only 5.5 per cent of their completed passes ended up inside the opposition’s penalty area, compared to 7.2 per cent for Arsenal and 7.6 per cent for Liverpool.

The city is still great, but its vast resources and dominant position have not been fully leveraged. Their season could end with open-top buses and champagne, but they will have to do it the hard way.

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