If the mid-week defeat to West Ham United in the Carabao Cup didn’t give Pep Guardiola pause for thought, Saturday’s Premier League loss at home to Crystal Palace will surely prompt the Manchester City boss to consider why his team are suddenly in the midst of a mini-crisis.
Of course, a first Premier League defeat since the opening weekend of the season wouldn’t be cause for concern for most teams, but City aren’t like most teams. Their standards are higher than pretty much any other side in the sport and so back-to-back losses warrants some investigation.
To examine what happened to Manchester City against both West Ham and Crystal Palace, it might be best to start with Kevin de Bruyne. The Belgian is arguably the most influential player at the Etihad Stadium with his technical ability on the ball and vision making him the one who dictates the tempo of City’s possession play.
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Against West Ham, the 30-year-old was largely ineffective as City struggled to find intensity. De Bruyne looked leggy until he was withdrawn for the more attack-minded Jack Grealish with seven minutes left to play. This was seen by many as a sign that the Belgian is in need of a rest having played almost every match since returning from injury.
It was therefore surprising to see de Bruyne in the lineup for Saturday’s home match against Crystal Palace. However, Guardiola was presented with a stark illustration of the importance of the Belgian to Manchester City in his absence when he was withdrawn on the hour-mark - City struggled to breakthrough with de Bruyne back in the dressing room and even conceded a second.
While Phil Foden continues to grow in stature for City, de Bruyne is key to the way Guardiola sets up his team to play through opponents. Without him, the Premier League champions can be too passive. They sometimes take too many touches of the ball, particularly when midfield play is funnelled through Grealish.
Circumstances went against Manchester City against Crystal Palace. The red card shown to Aymeric Laporte made it more difficult for the home team to find space in behind as Palace felt comfortable enough to sit deep and play on the counter - it was a plot that worked perfectly for them.
“We didn’t lose because of that,” Guardiola reasoned afterwards when asked about how the sending off changed the dynamic of the contest. “We conceded the first goal and we weren’t able to score a goal but after that we were really good and for 25-30 minutes of the second we were good.
“But when you play 50 minutes 10 against 11, it is difficult for a team like us because you need the process and to do everything right. The players showed character and tried, but unfortunately many, many things went wrong and we lost the game.”
It could be the case that to survive without both de Bruyne and a recognised centre forward Guardiola might have to revert to a more orthodox shape and approach. His critics would argue that too many players are currently playing out of position - Foden isn’t a centre forward by trade, and neither is Raheem Sterling, Ferran Torres or Bernardo Silva.
Next up in the Premier League is a derby clash against a Manchester United team that has had City’s number in recent seasons - City have taken just one point from a possible 12 from their last four league meetings with United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side might be in bad shape right now, but his players have a habit of producing on derby day.
That fixture has the potential to be a knife-edge for Manchester City. A third domestic defeat in a row could turn a mini-crisis into a medium-crisis, at least. A win, though, would point them in the right direction again. Guardiola has problems to solve and de Bruyne increasingly looks like one of them even if it’s not necessarily his fault.
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