FEW saw Saturday’s defeat coming for Manchester City at the hands of an under-strength Norwich and certainly nobody could have anticipated the manner of it.
As excellent as the Canaries were, a series of brain-farts across City’s backline contributed to their undoing and such calamitous malfunctions brought to mind severe punishments meted out at Leicester and Everton in 2016/17. Only then Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and co were learning a complex, new language. Now they’re fluent.
A glitch in the matrix then? Let’s hope so but if it would be a silly, knee-jerk reaction to now prophesize doom and gloom based on a singular loss, it’s equally wrong to quieten down genuine concerns with happy clapping.
City have problems. They are not in any way substantial and frankly they are ones pretty much every other club would kill to have. But there are problems nonetheless.
The decision taken in the summer not to replace Vincent Kompany was a risk and just one month in the seemingly unnecessary gamble has back-fired. Aymeric Laporte’s knee injury is expected to rule him out until February and that means City must navigate the bulk of this campaign with just two specialist centre-backs, a situation made worse when identifying who those centre-backs are. Stones and Otamendi can each boast several sustained streaks of imperious form in a blue shirt but when paired together it can still sometimes feel like the Rolling Stones with two Mick Jaggers and minus a Charlie Watts. It was those two who played like wild horses against Everton in January 2017. It was those two who had a 19th nervous breakdown at the weekend.
If that worry focuses on the slim reserves City possess as a long and demanding six month period sprawls out ahead of them, that pales to what they’ve been deprived of. It’s not often that anyone in their right mind agrees with what Jamie Redknapp has to say – I suspect even his mirror scoffs to practised soliloquies – but his assertion that Laporte’s absence is as impactful to City as a long-term loss of Virgil van Dijk would be to Liverpool is bang on the money. Last season the French defender was consistently magnificent and the cornerstone of the side’s amazing successes. He was easily as good as Van Dijk. He was easily as important.
And the issues don’t end there. With Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva typically energized but uncharacteristically unproductive at Carrow Road the scene was set for Leroy Sane to make a super-sub appearance, disorganising stubborn low blocks just like he did so many times last year. Only of course on this occasion Pep Guardiola didn’t have his highly effective dynamism to call on and with the German also out for the foreseeable future it should not be under-estimated how much they will miss Sane’s individuality when the script demands a rewrite.
All of which is sufficient for City supporters to feel decidedly uneasy right about now, and that’s before we get to the consequences that are already kicking in. After five league games, Liverpool command a five point lead. No team has ever led by that healthy margin before in the Premier League era at this early juncture.
Okay, enough with the negativity. Now it’s time to put all this into perspective.
Firstly, regarding those five points. They’re nothing. Not when 87% of the season is still uncontested. Not when the two heavyweights have yet to encounter one another. Not when it amounts to a week’s swing. Not when Liverpool have yet to experience their own injury headaches as surely they must.
More so, City trailed their red rivals by ten points after 20 games last term and still clawed their way back to the top. They did so too after losing Kevin De Bruyne for much of the battle, a player whose immense value to the team equals that of Laporte’s and Sane’s rolled into one.
Staying with the brilliant Belgian, his tweet following the Norwich reverse spoke volumes. “Without struggle there is no progress,” it stated and within those words is a truth rarely acknowledged about this City team and the DNA that courses through its veins dating right back to the takeover.
It is a team that thrives best on adversity; on overcoming the odds and this has long been the way. In 2011/12 a first title for two generations looked a formality until an Easter collapse put Manchester United firmly in the driving seat. It was then that Mancini’s men exploded into life only to then make life extremely difficult for themselves one more time against QPR. Just to make things interesting. Just to feel alive.
Two years later a side capable of battering Tottenham 11-1 on aggregate and Arsenal 6-3 somehow nearly threw it all away before staging a miraculous late surge, and this necessity to self-sabotage in order to truly excel was taken to the extreme last Christmas. City realistically needed to win all 14 of their remaining fixtures to retain their crown. They did and superbly so.
So dominant and celestial was Guardiola’s Centurions in 2017/18 that football appears to have forgotten all of this, constructing instead a narrative that has them boringly winning trophies in a straightforward fashion. The reality however is that when City are up against it, that is when they should truly be feared.