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It’s at this stage of the season, when games seem to matter more and trophies are on the line, where Manchester City was relying on Pep Guardiola coming into his own. After all, this was the acclaimed serial winner who was going to “transform our team to a whole new level,” according to chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak as he welcomed the Spanish coach to City amid much fanfare last June.
Guardiola has come up short.
Over the past six weeks, five of City’s seven games have been high-profile showdowns across three competitions – Monaco in the Champions League, Arsenal in the FA Cup semifinals, and Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea in the English Premier League – and City has failed to win a single one. Overall, in 11 league games against the current top seven this season, City has won just two of them.
There is another blockbuster looming, a derby against archrival Manchester United on Thursday, and City dares not lose.
Guardiola is feeling the heat as he faces up to a first season without winning a major trophy in a nine-year coaching career that started spectacularly at Barcelona and continued at Bayern Munich.
City was eliminated by Monaco in the last 16 of the Champions League, knocked out of the FA Cup by Arsenal on Sunday, and is only in fourth place in the Premier League – the final Champions League qualification spot – with five games left.
Lose to United at Etihad Stadium and there’s a real chance City will not even qualify for the Champions League next season, which would be a calamity for a club of its ambition and financial power, not to mention a huge embarrassment for Guardiola.
United makes the short journey across town on a 23-match unbeaten run in the Premier League, only now a point behind City in fifth place and with its aura gradually being restored under Jose Mourinho, Guardiola’s old foe from their time at the Spanish league with Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Mourinho thrives on these sorts of occasions, delivering tactical masterclasses this season notably in grinding Liverpool’s prolific attack to a halt at Anfield in October, and outwitting league leader Chelsea in a 2-0 win this month.
In this department, namely getting results in the big games, Mourinho is outclassing Guardiola.
So where has Guardiola been going wrong?
Arsenal hadn’t come from behind to win a game against any of England’s big six – City, United, Chelsea, Tottenham, and Liverpool – since late 2012. Until it played City on Sunday, that is.
Losing in that way to a side as fragile as Arsenal currently is highlights an issue that is becoming apparent at City under Guardiola: Managing games.
City was 1-0 up and in command against Chelsea in a home league game in December, only to concede three goals through poor defending in the final half-hour and lose 3-1. City was 2-0 ahead at home to Tottenham in January, lost control, and drew 2-2.
Guardiola knows this is an issue. Even against Sunderland, a match City comfortably won 2-0 in March, Guardiola was unhappy with his players for coasting through the final 25 minutes.
City needs to add some steel and team shape to its pretty football.
Guardiola can sound like a broken record when he laments his side’s failure to finish off chances.
“It happened many times, but it is what it is: We have to score and we didn’t,” he said after the FA Cup loss to Arsenal.
The most obvious example was Kevin De Bruyne hitting the crossbar from point-blank range when City was 1-0 up at the Etihad against Chelsea, which went on to equalize moments later.
In the league game against Everton, City came away with just a 1-1 draw after missing two penalties and scoring from just one of its 19 second-half shots.
City owns some of the most coveted attacking players around, but their lack of ruthlessness has infuriated Guardiola.
Particularly with captain Vincent Kompany injured for much of the season, City hasn’t had an obdurate enough defense to be able to sit back and see out games.
Nor has goalkeeper Claudio Bravo’s shot-stopping or command of the area been strong enough to bring reassurance in pressure moments.
Guardiola’s “attack at all costs” mentality might not help in this regard, either.
All managers can point to moments of misfortune during games, but Guardiola has had a legitimate sense of grievance with certain key occasions.
Notably the shove on City winger Raheem Sterling by Kyle Walker in Tottenham’s area moments before Spurs equalized in the 2-2 draw in January.
Against Arsenal, City had a goal wrongly disallowed when it was 0-0 in the cup semifinal and could have been awarded a stoppage-time penalty for handball against Nacho Monreal in the league fixture.
Guardiola tries to make a point of not openly complaining about referees, but his exasperation can be clear in the technical area.