Remember when Manchester City won its first 10 games of the season, Pep Guardiola was hailed a genius and pundits declared the title race over before it had begun? Seems like a long time ago now, right?
After Arsenal beat Manchester City in the second FA Cup semifinal of the weekend (Chelsea beat Spurs 4-2 in the thrilling first one), Guardiola will end the season without a trophy, the first time in his career as coach. It could get even worse for him; Thursday, City plays a buoyant Manchester United in the Premier League and defeat in that game will push the club out of the top four and the Champions League places.
This is not what the club had in mind when it waited two years to bring Guardiola as coach.
Last season, Man City won the League Cup and reached the Champions League semifinal. It was seen as a disappointment. The concern for Guardiola this season is that, short of an exhilarating Champions League group stage win over Barcelona back in November, the team has failed every test against a big side since then. It has lost away at Spurs, Liverpool, Everton and Chelsea. When Manuel Pellegrini was in charge, the team was accused of complacency, as if it was a reflection of its coach. Guardiola is a whole lot more intense than his predecessor, but the same accusation stands.
It's a strange record for a team with, arguably, the most talented group of attacking players in the league. City’s defensive woes have been well-documented, from the struggles of Claudio Bravo and the center backs, to the form of the aging fullbacks and captain Vincent Kompany’s injury record. Guardiola wanted more defensive reinforcements last summer and will certainly get his wish this time around, with Aymeric Laporte (Athletic Bilbao) and Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus) on the wish list. Injuries have not helped: Ilkay Gundogan was ruled out just as he was finding his form, while Gabriel Jesus has missed the last eight games after an electric introduction to the league–not that Sergio Aguero is a bad back-up.
None of this makes City unique, and Guardiola has often spoken about learning the most about yourself when you lose. He has vowed to be better next season–“This season was a lesson for me. It's normal when you have seven, eight or nine years as a manager to have a season where you don't have as much success as before. It can happen,” he said–but first he needs to make sure the team can stay in the top four.
Otherwise a disappointing season will turn into an outright disaster.