It’s been the time of year where fixtures came thick and fast and the media got giddy over things that don’t really exist. Oh! No they didn’t! Oh, yes they did. Pantomime season didn’t just play out in theatres around the country with former soap stars and forgotten reality TV faces, it’s been happening in the Premier League. A big win at West Ham should draw a line under it (for now). But the big closing night won’t make all parts of the act disappear.
He’s Behind You
The week leading into the FA Cup tie with West Ham saw intense focus fall upon manager Pep Guardiola. This began with an animated gesture to the Etihad crowd during the Burnley game, followed by frosty post-match interviews, then a series of snippets across various platforms. Some will say it stemmed from the Liverpool result. The gap to Antonio Conte’s Chelsea increasing and Jürgen Klopp himself moving ahead.
But Pep isn’t the sort of manager they will want sneaking up behind them.
There have been many interpretations about the interviews and subsequent comments. The optimistic rival had Pep unhappy and close to retirement. He didn’t think much of the fans and doesn’t even see City as a top four club. The idea City isn’t a member of the “traditional top four” was expanded upon with the opinion of a writer that worked with Pep, harvesting his views, back in a season that saw a Joe Royal led side relegated back to the second tier.
It’s safe to say, even the most passionate Blue wouldn’t have considered City a big gun that year. From an outsider in a faraway land, a side that had recently come up from the third tier probably weren’t on the radar.
But the press isn’t going to let things like, facts or the passage of time, get in the way of servicing the majority of clickbait readers that made their allegiance to United or Liverpool years ago, and find City’s emergence a great inconvenience.
Nor will these readers observe the rules they formerly followed. If Sir Alex Ferguson or José Mourinho took aim at the press and absorbed the flack, it was genius. An example of them playing mind games, deflecting pressure from the players. When Klopp displays an outburst, it is pure passion. When Pep does these things, it signals he is disheartened, that there are underlying troubles, he’s been found out and is losing the plot.
Could it just be he had genuine gripes? Lee Mason delivered a refereeing performance in the Burnley match that was so poor, Guardiola got a taste of what officiating was like in the third tier for City when he made his original remarks about the club’s stature. Far from him not caring, as recently implied, he showed his great frustration. Patience with the players adapting to his methods is one thing, fighting a twelfth man that should be impartial is the final straw.
Bacary Sagna has been asked to explain his Instagram post to the FA that read: “10 against 12…but still fighting and winning as a team. #together #mancity”
It appears to be a succinct but comprehensive summary of the game. Perhaps the Football Association should just watch the video of the tie back, they’ll be hard pressed not to agree.
What is also worth noting, is how he emphasised the team’s togetherness. Down to ten men, they celebrated huddled at the corner flag in a true show of team spirit. The men on the pitch, at times, look disjointed but it isn’t a signal that they’re divided.
Areas of Absence
It begs the question, if the commitment is there, what is missing? The easiest answer that fits most problems, is the correct personnel for the roles Pep requires. Ask any City fan what positions need reinforcing, and they’ll mention two full-backs, a centre back, a new holding midfielder, a striker, and worst of all for Pep: a goalkeeper.
These gaping areas of weakness raise a valid problem with the Guardiola approach. If he is the best coach in the world, as City fans were led to believe, why isn’t he able to train the players into these roles? And more importantly, when Pantomime season turns into a continual comedy of errors on the pitch, why doesn’t he instead play to the strengths that are available?
When Pellegrini refused to change, he was labelled (by yours truly) as stubborn and cantankerous. Is Pep any less difficult with his immovable approach? You can imagine him buying a cat and persevering with it until it barked. Or telling Kolarov he is a centre back, or Bravo he is an upgrade on Joe Hart.
Absence Makes the Hart Grow Fonder
And there it is, the elephant in the dressing room. Guardiola’s first major statement was to jettison Joe Hart. He’d seen enough videos to believe he couldn’t coach him into the player he required. Presumably all the current players that can’t follow his methods slipped detection. He brought in Bravo, who is having a shocker of a season.
The Ghost of Hart is cast over every failed save, misplaced pass, and poor positioning. There’s no suggestion Hart will be brought back, the player himself recently poured cold water on the idea. Pep is too proud to admit he made a mistake with Hart. But he will quietly move Bravo on in the summer if he doesn’t improve between now and May. Until then, each ironic cheer when he makes an easy save will increase in volume as people become evermore passionate for their exiled hero.
When Absence is Good (but bad)
The absence of a solid defence requires no explanation. A myriad of factors will mean it continues for the foreseeable future: the continued absence of Vincent Kompany, aged full-backs, a lack of protection from midfield, Claudio Bravo being Claudio Bravo, and the John Stones training school.
That last one doesn’t mean there’s any doubt about his potential ability. He should become a world class centre back. What shouldn’t be happening, is Stones completing every step of his progression in live action. It’s telling that rare City clean sheets (Watford, Hull City after being substituted early with injury) came without Stones involved.
But like Bravo, Pep will find it hard to backtrack where Stones is involved.
Now or Never for Kelechi was, as expected, met with vitriol online. What was said in that article still stands and has started to come true. Iheanacho didn’t make the most of Agüero’s four game ban – he couldn’t even keep his place in the side. A surprise start against Burnley further highlighted how his development has stunted. With Gabriel Jesus here, the chance to turn the tide is a smaller window now.
But Sergio Agüero himself is the centre of absence problems. Namely, does Pep want him permanently absent? There’s the continued suggestion he doesn’t fit the style and isn’t part of his plans. But nothing should be read into Kun not starting the Burnley game. That was a good absence. He has a history of injuries when overplayed. A four-game rest means little with only one day off between fixtures. Initially, it wasn’t worth the risk.
Absence of Support
More than once (Empty Seats, Empty Gestures) the fallacy about empty seats has been explained. What is absent at the moment, is a strong atmosphere. Pep understandably demands more from the crowd. But fans and players share a symbiotic relationship. Fans need to see passion to give it back, and vice-versa.
It took until the hour mark at home against Watford for fans to sing, “We’ve got Guardiola” and a hammering of Slaven Bilić’s side in the FA Cup for it return with any gusto.
Absence of the Panto
With an extended rest, Guardiola and his side have a chance to take stock. The coach has indicated he’s perhaps demanded too much, too soon. What he’ll be looking for now is the comedy of errors that have turned pantomime season into a circus to disappear. The focus is now on establishing a top four berth.
Beyond that, anything is still possible. Pep may continue to stress this is all a learning curve but one lesson he doesn’t need is on the unpredictability of the Premier League. Every team will drop points, if City can establish solid form it will lead to success.
Will that translate to trophies in season one of Pep’s reign? It’s hard to say. But an absence of silverware won’t be a concern if several months from now clear progression has been made.