Manchester City lost 4-0 to Everton on Sunday. The result surprised. It was ugly. It left City in fifth place, 10 points behind leaders Chelsea. Judging from Pep Guardiola’s facial expressions. Things look grim. Predictably, English media members are talking crisis. It’s a narrative that fulfills prejudices about effete continental passing not working in the Premier League. This is all a bit hysterical and short-sighted.
First, Manchester City’s performance today was not that bad. There are no good 4-0 defeats. But, City held 71 percent of the possession, produced more shots total and on target, and forced more corner kicks. Everton had to commit nearly twice as many fouls. Those numbers tend to work out in a team’s favor.
These figures don’t absolve Manchester City for what happened. But, they suggest all is not moribund. There’s an alternate universe where Raheem Sterling wins the early penalty call, City takes a 1-0 lead early, and it’s a different match.
Manchester City has improved this season. Pep Guardiola came to England with warranted fanfare. He had spent seven years at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, winning six league titles and the Champions League twice. His Barca team that finished second to Real Madrid in 2012 had a +85 goal difference in 30 matches.
Guardiola was widely acknowledged to be the world’s best manager (or close to it). He was entering an environment with nearly limitless resources. Expectations were high. City have not met them yet. But, City are exceeding what they did last year.
Manchester City are on pace to finish with 76 points, which would be 10 points improved from last year when they barely qualified for Champions League play. That’s not where City wants to be. But, it’s closer.
City have done better in the “big” matches this season, despite notable setbacks. They have taken just six points from their five matches against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester United so far. But, that’s a better pace than last season when they earned eight points from 10 matches against those clubs.
Such improvement may seem modest. But, it’s worth remembering the top of the league is much improved from last year. Arsenal, Tottenham, and Manchester City had mediocre-ish seasons in 2015-16. Chelsea finished outside the Top 7. Every team reloaded on talent. While City brought in Guardiola, Manchester United added Jose Mourinho and Chelsea enlisted Antonio Conte.
Leicester City won the Premier League last season, 10 points clear, on 81 points. Current leaders Chelsea are on pace for 94 points. Arsenal, winning the real title in 4th, are on pace for 80.
Some problems you can blame on Guardiola. He opted to sign Claudio Bravo and punt longtime goalkeeper Joe Hart off to Italy. Hart was out of form. Guardiola wanted a goalkeeper who could play the ball better with his feet. It was defensible at the time. But, that move has not panned out and cost City points. Bravo’s shot-stopping has been poor. He has allowed goals on 14 of his last 22 shots on target.
Many of the biggest problems you can’t blame on Guardiola. Players that signed have not panned out. City has not been producing its own talent from within. For all the money spent, City have an old, thin squad. Injuries and suspensions exacerbated that.
If age 23-27 is a rough physical peak for soccer players, Manchester City has just three first-team players who fit that cohort. One, Ilkay Gundogan, has a lengthy injury history and is out until August. It’s clear, in hindsight, this team needed a more substantial rebuilding project.
Guardiola had to start six players who were 31 or older on Sunday. That included central midfield of doddering Yaya Toure and Pablo Zabaleta, who is a defender. Both fullbacks, Bacary Sagna and Yaya Toure, are aging as well.
Despite the setbacks and the unfortunate result, things are not so bad for Manchester City. Chelsea is on pace for a historically great season. They will continue it, or they will fall back over the final 17 matches. If the Blues fall back, Manchester City are among the teams right there to capitalize. Three points separate four teams in the group just behind.
The media cycle focuses on battles. The Premier League season is a campaign, one that is just over halfway over. Manchester City are “in crisis” this week. Everton, the team that just crushed them 4-0, were “in crisis” last week after an FA Cup loss. Someone else will be there next week.