Pep Guardiola has seen enough in recent performances to sign a new two-year contract, City have beaten Chelsea and Liverpool either side of the World Cup to progress in the Carabao Cup, and they have just welcomed back a World Champion to their squad.
But something isn&apost quite right at the Etihad, as back-to-back home league games have illustrated. City have been sloppy too often this season, and the results might finally be starting to catch up with them.
With Arsenal looking like they have no intention of slowing down any time soon, City will have to do what they have done in previous years and put a number of wins together to keep the pressure on a rival. The players know it, and the manager knows it, but putting that into practice is easier said than done – especially with City&aposs fixtures coming up.
And that January schedule, against Chelsea, Manchester United and a Tottenham double-header all coming up in the Premier League, means that the two recent setbacks at home to Brentford and Everton are all the more concerning.
In both games, City had the most of the possession and chances, but failed to take them and were caught on the break to drop five points. Arsenal have kept winning, and are suddenly seven points ahead. Not to discredit the performances of Brentford and Everton, who thoroughly deserved their points, but City have to be winning home games like that if they want to be title contenders.
Speaking after his wonder strike earned Everton their point, Demarai Gray pointed to character and fight as an important factor in their result against City. It was a reminder that for all their quality, teams won&apost roll over and hand them the points anymore.
He said: “Obviously when you come to the Etihad you have to change your game plan a little bit but obviously we had a plan and stuck to it well. We got our reward with the goal and after that we dug deep so there are a lot of positives to take
“Its part of our character, and the clubs DNA, fighting and digging deep for results. We left everything out there today. [Against City you have to] stick to the game plan. You have to approach games a bit differently, especially when you come to the Etihad, if we are at home, we can give anyone a challenge, but coming here its difficult so sticking to the game plan was key and we did that.”
Brentford captain Ben Mee gave a similar assessment when explaining how they went about keeping Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland quiet in the November game.
“You expect them to create stuff. They did but we kept them down, defended really well, kept the big man quiet and kept De Bruyne quiet for most of it as well,” he said.
“Ethan [Pinnock] did brilliant against Haaland, competed really well and defended really well. He&aposs tough, they&aposre a quality side and you&aposve got to be on your toes. The balls that are wide and his movement and getting in behind and beyond you. He&aposs always a threat.”
In those two games, Haaland was man-marked by a big, physical defender in Pinnock and Everton&aposs Ben Godfrey, and a solid back line restricted the space for De Bruyne to be effective.
There were different tactics applied from City in those two games, though, with Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden selected on the wings against Brentford before Riyad Mahrez and Jack Grealish preferred against Everton.
Guardiola has explained how Grealish and Mahrez are useful in slowing possession down and keeping the ball away from the opponent, perhaps reacting to the Brentford defeat by introducing them against Everton to control the game a little more.
Players like Bernardo and Foden are more often tasked with running at the defence to make something happen – even if that carries a little more risk and could invite a counter-attack if possession is lost. But despite the change in tactics, the performance was equally as frustrating and slightly disjointed in the face of a physical opponent.
Guardiola said after the Everton draw: “Today was quite similar to Brentford but Brentford were better [than us] in all the aspects, the way they played the long balls and second balls. Today we controlled that really well. We were better. Calvert-Lewin is strong but we won the duels, we didnt concede corners or free kicks.”
Guardiola added that the collective performances against Everton, and before that Leeds and Liverpool, are among the best in his time as manager, and was philosophical about the Everton point knowing that City only conceded one shot on goal – sometimes, it can simply be a case that football is unfair.
He may be more concerned about the failure to force another goal, like City did against Fulham in the home game before that, or the admissions from players like Manuel Akanji and John Stones that his defence know they haven&apost been good enough in recent games.
Of course, every team can go through difficult stages, and maybe this is what Guardiola was referring to when he&aposs said for months that nobody knows how players will react from game to game after the World Cup break.
That is a very fair mitigating factor, and there is an acknowledgement from numerous members of the City dressing room of the need to put a winning run together, and that Arsenal are contenders not to be underestimated. There&aposs also a realisation that the Brentford and Everton results have been pretty costly.
In practice, however, it&aposs fair to say City have flattered to deceive at the Etihad since playing United off the park in October, and have probably been too reliant on Haaland or De Bruyne to get them out of trouble.
If Akanji and Stones have called for the defensive players to play their part in cutting out the errors to reduce the pressure on the attackers, then those in the forward positions must also take more responsibility to ensure one defensive mistake doesn&apost cost points.
It will be a team effort to improve form, and the simple truth is that their recent home performances haven&apost been that of true title contenders.
City will know that, and be fully aware that they can&apost be losing points at home like they have done if they have ambitions of catching Arsenal. However, this is a team who know what it takes to win titles, and if any side can put a run together, it&aposs them. Now is the time to put all that experience into practice.
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