MOTD2 analysis: ‘I think they will still win the league’ – is Man City’s ‘mini-crisis’ over?10 December 2023
Manchester City's mini-crisis is over, but not before they suffered another scare.
City's stuttering season was facing another serious setback at half-time of Sunday's game at Luton, with last year's Treble winners 1-0 down and facing the prospect of a fifth straight Premier League game without a win.
Two second-half goals in the space of three minutes from Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish rescued Pep Guardiola's side, however, and City's fightback provided the perfect response to anyone doubting their credentials for another title defence.
"The team showed their character, but that didn't surprise me at all," said former City defender Micah Richards, who watched their 2-1 win at Kenilworth Road for MOTD2.
"Whenever people talk negatively about them, it just spurs them on.
"I wouldn't say Pep has been touchy recently, but it is like he is taking that criticism and going 'well, if that's what you think, we will show you', and the whole team has got that attitude too.
"They might not win the title, although I believe they will, but they will fight to the end. If someone else does beat them to it, then it is going to be very close."
'Complacency is not the right word'
Guardiola hit back at Gary Neville after last weekend's draw with Spurs, when the Sky pundit claimed City had become "complacent" after winning three titles in a row.
Richards understands why Pep was so unhappy at his side being given that label, and feels it was unfair.
"I don't think 'complacent' was the right word Gary was looking for," Richards said. "I wanted to be sure, so I actually looked it up in the dictionary to be certain about its exact definition.
"It means being so self-satisfied and uncritical of yourselves because of success that you don't even try your hardest, and that's definitely not Pep, or the City side I see.
"I could be wrong, but I don't think that's what Gary meant. I think he just meant that, by their high standards, City are letting teams back into games, where normally they would be ruthless and finish them off.
"If you look at those games they drew, against Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham, they had opportunities to wrap all three of them up - if, say, Erling Haaland takes his chance when City are 2-1 up against Spurs, we would not be having this conversation.
"That is not down to a lack of hunger, though, or the team taking their foot off the gas. It never is."
Instead, Richards feels City have missed some of their usual game-changers, with new arrivals like Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes unable to make the same impact in close games.
"People need to remember that Kevin de Bruyne has been out since the start of the season, and City lost Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez in the summer," he added.
"The thing I loved about Mahrez was that even if he wasn't playing well, he would always finish games off and get City over the line in vital moments.
"Gundogan and De Bruyne obviously did that a lot too, as well as being such a key part of the way City play. Of course they are missing all three of them in midfield.
"I thought Kovacic played well against Luton but it has been hard for him to come in and adjust to City's system, and it's the same for Nunes as well.
"They are used to playing a certain way but now they have got centre-halves coming into their midfield space, and full-backs too.
"Josko Gvardiol has also found it difficult, because he is one of the best young centre-halves in the world, but Guardiola wants to use him at left-back. It is not as if he is asking him to tuck in, either, because he was flying forward all the time against Luton.
"That's Pep for you - he puts City's system before any player - but I know myself that asking a centre-half to go into full-back areas is not easy to pull off.
"The distances you keep to opposition players are very different to when you are in the middle, and it is easy to be exposed in one on one situations out wide.
"Gvardiol is an excellent defender but he does not want to be out there, stopping crosses and all of that. As he found against Luton, it only takes one small mistake to lead to a goal."
Trouble in transition too
City were a point clear at the top of the table after they beat Bournemouth 6-1 on 4 November, before three consecutive draws and Wednesday's defeat by Aston Villa meant they lost ground on their title rivals.
But Richards does not think their performances dipped significantly during that winless run, and instead claims they have not been at their best defensively all season.
"There has been a big conversation about what's been wrong with City recently, but they have not actually been playing that badly in the past few weeks," he explained.
"What is concerning me, though, because I watch City all the time, is what they are like on the transition, when they lose the ball - and not just in the past few games either.
"They look a little bit more vulnerable this season, and that's the worry for me. I feel for the defenders because once the opposition breaks past Rodri, it is often three versus two, or four on three at the back.
"Normally they would deal with that, so I wouldn't say it's down to naivety, but City have been conceding more goals in the big moments this season.
"I think losing John Stones, who has started only four out of 16 league games because of injury, has been a massive blow.
"Not just in terms of him as a player who can use the ball, but off it as well. He is such a calm head in those situations and also so good at winning possession in midfield. It makes a huge difference to have him back in the team."
No Haaland, but Foden can flourish
City's latest injury concern is Haaland, who missed Sunday's game due to a foot injury. Guardiola is unsure exactly when he will be fit to return.
It was the first meaningful league match the prolific Norwegian striker had missed since 1 April, when City beat Liverpool 4-1, but Richards feels their performance against Luton shows they can still cope when he is absent.
"If Haaland is out long-term, then I wouldn't worry," Richards added. "I'd still be optimistic about City, and I like what they are doing.
"Against Luton, they tweaked their shape and allowed Phil Foden to play in a number 10 role. With him in the centre, you are always going to create something."
Will it be 'party time' again?
City are four points behind leaders Liverpool but are actually closer to the summit than they were at this stage last season, when they were seven points adrift of Arsenal after 16 games, and still ended up winning the title with three games to spare.
"Liverpool have got away with it a bit this week, with two late winners," Richards added.
"No-one knows what kind of performance you are going to get from them at the moment, but going forward they always look like they are going to produce when Mohamed Salah is in the team.
"It's the same with Arsenal, who have not been at their brilliant best like last season, but they have still been getting over the line most of the time.
"Another of my old clubs, Aston Villa, have had a fantastic week and I can't speak highly enough of the job Unai Emery has done, but it is going to be very hard for them to sustain that over a long period of time.
"I watch them and think they are an excellent side, but if they lost Ollie Watkins or John McGinn to injury then their team would be totally different.
"We've already seen that happen to Tottenham, when they lost James Maddison and their two first-choice centre-halves, although Cristian Romero is back now after suspension.
"That's the biggest difference between those teams and City, who can replace players without it affecting them as much.
"It's exciting to have a few teams in the race but I still believe City are best placed to win the league, just because of the amount of quality they have in their squad.
"I think people forget that they often have this kind of spell at this time of the year, where they drop points - but come the end of the season it is usually party time again!"
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