Last week it seemed like business as usual at Manchester City. It beat West Ham 5-0 in the FA Cup, and the strikers looked like scoring every time they poured forward. Fast forward a week and what a different outlook the Citizens are facing. Shambolic defending in a 4-0 defeat to Everton has left the early title favorite 10 points behind first-place Chelsea and with Pep Guardiola re-aligning his ambition for the season as simply finishing in the top four.
The English press seems to take pleasure from Guardiola’s travails, as if winning trophies at Barcelona and Bayern Munich were easy and it’s only “the tough Premier League” that is a true test for him. That's not correct, though. At City, the squad he inherited was far less coherent (and collectively, less talented; and perhaps, less adaptable) than at his previous clubs.
Guardiola has been criticized further for his decision to jettison Joe Hart for Claudio Bravo at the start of the season. Bravo conceded four goals from four shots at Everton and has let in 14 from the last 22 he has faced. City’s defense gives Bravo little help, though. For all the debate about John Stones’s form, Nicolas Otamendi has rarely looked worth his transfer fee while Guardiola is now using Pablo Zabaleta as a holding midfielder alongside Yaya Toure. It worked with Philipp Lahm, but he is not having the same success with the Argentine.
City spent a lot of money in the summer on freshening up the squad, and reducing its average age. Guardiola was expected to do the rest. That has patently not happened; although, as was shown in the Champions League in over Barcelona, this team can still hit new heights, albeit not on a consistent basis.
The Pep versus Jose narrative from the start of the season now looks like bubbling into a battle for fourth place between the two. Both may yet finish outside the top four. It’s not quite what either coach could have imagined entering the campaign.