City took their winless run in the Premier League to four with an abject defeat to a brilliant Aston Villa side on Wednesday, prompting Pep Guardiola to admit his side are struggling. He has said that they are in trouble before, but rarely admits they are struggling – which suggests anything they try isn&apost working.
That was the case at Aston Villa. Without Rodri, Jack Grealish, Jeremy Doku and also Kevin De Bruyne, City had no midfield. John Stones was back, but looked like a player who hadn&apost played in a few weeks, and Rico Lewis lost his battle with John McGinn comprehensively. When Guardiola turned to the bench, he restored midfield solidity by bringing on Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes – but in taking off Phil Foden and Julian Alvarez, he took off his only two supply lines to Erling Haaland.
It was a different kind of game to the draws with Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham. In those games, City were well in the contest for much of the games, conceding due to individual errors or opposition brilliance. Drawing against those three sides, compiled of hundreds of millions of pounds of the world&aposs best talent, is no disgrace at this stage of the season.
But against Villa (who have still spent a lot of money, just less), City were outfought and outthought from the first minute. The hosts took the game to City, exploiting their wide-open midfield, and putting pressure on a back line who have all made individual mistakes recently. The result was a ropey formation, and key absences meant Foden, Alvarez and Bernardo were ineffective and isolated in a line of three behind Erling Haaland.
The fact that City&aposs midfield and forward line that ended the game was Lewis, Kovacic, Nunes, Bernardo (playing out of position), and Oscar Bobb, is extremely telling. City were never scoring an equaliser after Leon Bailey&aposs goal, because they had no way of getting the ball forward to Haaland.
So what has gone wrong, and how can City fix it?
It&aposs easy to point at the Villa defeat and say that had Rodri played, City would have been much better. They probably would have, but as Guardiola pointed out, Rodri started the three previous draws where City haven&apost looked great. Similarly, had Grealish and Doku been available, City would have had more options in attack and off the bench.
Rodri would have helped Stones ease back into action, or even given him another game to recover. He may have filled the chasm in the centre of City&aposs formation, stopping the ball coming straight back for another wave of Villa attack. But for all of his strengths and undoubted quality, he has not yet reached the heights of last season.
He makes City better, clearly, but Guardiola is right that he may not have changed their fortunes too much on Wednesday. With the fixture list looking a little easier in the coming weeks after a torrid run, Rodri will have to step up and lead from the middle to get City back into form.
Grealish will return at Luton, allowing Bernardo to move back into midfield if needed, which will instantly balance the side more. And City will hope Doku is not out for an extended period. He will look at upcoming home games with Crystal Palace and Sheffield United with excitement. After the New Year, Kevin De Bruyne will return, too.
City have lost all four of the games Rodri has missed this season due to suspension, and their last five defeats in all competitions have come when Rodri hasn&apost started (including the final day reverse at Brentford last season). Grealish was missed at his old club this week after he also served a one-match suspension, with Doku injured. His five bookings in five games he didn&apost start feel even more foolish given how much he was needed at Villa Park.
Had Stones been fit for the other three defeats during Rodri&aposs previous suspension, City may not have lost at Newcastle, Wolves and Arsenal. Maybe. Had Kevin De Bruyne been fit all season, City could have played differently and won a few more games. Who knows.
Julian Alvarez started the season in brilliant form, but has gone off the boil in the last few weeks – unsurprising maybe given his non-stop run of games since January 2022, barring a couple of weeks off this summer, and his three trips back to South America over the last three months. He could do with a rest, but City need him.
Likewise, Foden has been needed more in De Bruyne&aposs absence, plus the games Grealish has missed recently. He is another who could do with a game or two on the bench, but that is not possible. It&aposs not just that City are missing the players who can&apost play, the games might be starting to catch up with those who are starting in their absence.
When Guardiola looked to his bench at Villa, he needed to plug a midfield gap that wasn&apost just leaking chances but faced a tide of Villa onslaught. On came Kovacic and Nunes, but they were unconvincing to put things kindly. They weren&apost trusted to start in Rodri&aposs absence, despite being more comfortable in midfield than the two defenders who played there instead. When they came on, Villa just played round them.
Kovacic started well next to Rodri, but has struggled since his error-prone display at Arsenal. Nunes has looked good in flashes in the Champions League, but still needs time to adapt as others start ahead of him. Kalvin Phillips is not a new signing, but seven players have started in midfield roles since his last start, with Guardiola naming two others who he would also play in defensive midfield.
Josko Gvardiol is a regular, but was caught out time after time against Villa, and Guardiola doesn&apost yet trust him to play centrally. He also can&apost play Nathan Ake three times a week, with Gvardiol needing to become more consistent – which will come with time.
Jeremy Doku has looked electric against some of the lesser defences in the league, but hasn&apost had the same effect against some of the better ones. Guardiola is still to put his finger on the best way to use both him and Grealish, but the Villa defeat showed that at least one is needed. Like with Gvardiol, consistency for Doku will come with time, and neither have been the main reason for City&aposs winless run.
What these four games do show, however, is that Guardiola is still working out how best to use his new players who arrived in the summer. What they would have given for Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez or even Aymeric Laporte on Wednesday.
City have not won in four games, but three of those were against other members of the top five, and the other was away at Stamford Bridge – a ground where City have never found things easy under Guardiola. You would hope that Chelsea&aposs billion-pound spending should result in a squad capable of giving the champions a game.
It&aposs unfortunate for City in a way that their winless run has come in a set of very difficult fixtures. Yes, City have conceded late goals to drop points in each – Bailey&aposs 74th-minute strike was the earliest last goal they have conceded, each contributing to nine dropped points.
Next up is a trip to Luton, a dead rubber against Red Star, a home game against an out-of-form Crystal Palace, a Christmas clash with Everton at Goodison Park, and a New Year visit of Sheffield United. In fact, of their next 10 Premier League games, only one is against a side currently placed higher than 10th.
By that time, City will welcome United in the derby in March before facing Liverpool, Brighton, Arsenal and Villa in their next difficult run. De Bruyne should be back, City should be world champions, and they will hope to be kicking on in the FA Cup and Champions League.
With a favourable run of fixtures to follow their nightmare run, a chance to put a trademark winter set of wins together, and with key players returning, Guardiola can see a way out of City&aposs struggles.