Pep Guardiola’s rare transfer mistakes are biting as Manchester City miss a key duo

By | April 1, 2024

Pep Guardiola's rare transfer mistakes are biting as Manchester City miss a key duo
Riyad Mahrez (left) and Ilkay Gundogan left Man City last summer after winning the Treble – Getty Images/Visionhaus

Manchester City sit third in the Premier League, with Pep Guardiola admitting they are no longer favorites for a fourth straight league title. They have scored fewer goals than Liverpool and conceded more than Arsenal. They have not won any of their four games against their two title rivals, and only one of their five home games against the traditional ‘big six’. Unlike in each of the last six seasons, City do not have the best expected goal difference in the league, a distinction that belongs to Arsenal.

City’s best may still be City’s best – another Treble remains achievable, after all – but they haven’t delivered with the usual, unerring regularity. They pass like City and dominate like City, but something is missing, especially at the sharp end of the pitch.

Some of this can be traced back to an unusual inaccuracy in the transfer market. Just as City’s clockwork football under Guardiola has approached perfection, so too has the club acted with smooth efficiency in recruiting players. They had enormous riches at their disposal, but City were forensic in their choice of targets and for a long time they barely missed a step.

That clarity of vision and enviable success rate have faltered somewhat. Guardiola has sought to freshen up his central midfield options over the past two summers, with top talents such as Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice moving elsewhere.

Since 2022, City have spent £125 million on Kalvin Phillips, Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes. Phillips’ spell at City was a failure for the club and the player, and he is currently on loan at West Ham United. Kovacic is a high-level continuity player, but cannot replace the goalscoring offering of the departed Ilkay Gundogan. Nunes’ ball handling marks him out as a talent, but he doesn’t seem entirely stylistically suited to City and has yet to be trusted against elite opponents. City are still dependent on 32-year-old Kevin De Bruyne for goals and creativity from midfield.

Pep Guardiola's rare transfer mistakes are biting as Manchester City miss a key duoPep Guardiola's rare transfer mistakes are biting as Manchester City miss a key duo

Kevin De Bruyne has had an injury season – Reuters/Lee Smith

On the wings, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Cole Palmer have all been sold since the summer of 2022. Jack Grealish was a key player during the Treble campaign, providing control around Erling Haaland, but whether he has proven value at £100 million is an open question. Jeremy Doku can be a match winner but is erratic in the penalty area. It currently feels like neither winger is the Goldilocks option that Guardiola wants.

With the departures of Mahrez and Gundogan last summer, City lost two reliable sources of goal contributions who have not been immediately replaced. Mahrez has scored 15 league goals in each of City’s last three title-winning campaigns. Gundogan almost equaled Mahrez, with 39 goals in the last three league seasons. Thanks to a string of goals at the end of last season, Gundogan scored both goals in a 2-1 win over Leeds, the first two goals in a 3-0 win over Everton and both goals in the FA Cup final against Manchester United.

Kovacic, ostensibly Gundogan’s replacement, has zero goals and zero assists in the league. Doku has two league goals and five assists, but four of those came in one match against Bournemouth in November. De Bruyne has been unable to produce his usual numbers after missing half the season with a hamstring injury. Bernardo Silva’s six goals and four assists are a decent return, while Phil Foden has made his most impressive return yet with eleven goals and seven assists. Julian Alvarez has eight league goals and seven assists, but only two of those goals have come since the turn of the year. Both were against Burnley.

Where City’s attack was once a rotating cast, it is now defined by Haaland, the world’s leading goalscorer. But for the first time since his first season at Borussia Dortmund in 2019/20, Haaland is performing below expected goals and scoring fewer goals than you would expect based on the quality of chances he has had. He missed a spell through injury, but Haaland is only halfway to last year’s extraordinary tally of 36 league goals. Haaland’s relative coldness in front of goal could well have been the difference between home draws against Spurs, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, or wins.

Balancing the team around Haaland, De Bruyne and Foden – City’s three most powerful attackers – while maintaining the desired control over both ball possession and opponent counter-attacks has also been a challenge for Guardiola. De Bruyne was hooked on Kovacic during a nail-biting second half at Anfield in a bid to restore order. Foden was shunted wide left to accommodate Kovacic against Arsenal but was peripheral in a blunt City performance. Sterile possession was also a theme of City’s season. Only 5.5 percent of their completed passes end up inside the opponent’s penalty area, compared to 7.2 percent for Arsenal and 7.6 percent for Liverpool.

City remain formidable but have not yet fully exploited their vast resources and dominant position. Their season could still end with open-top buses and champagne, but they’ll have to do it the hard way.

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