It is an odd statement to make about a team that has scored 13 goals in their last two games and not conceded since Jefferson Lerma’s late consolation for Bournemouth way back on February 25, but Manchester City need to find another gear to retain their Premier League title.
Led by the brutal goalscoring brilliance of Erling Haaland, Pep Guardiola’s class of 2023 are arguably the most devastating of the City teams that he has built when the mood takes them. But the reason they are currently trailing Arsenal by eight points – albeit with a game in hand – is that they have shown flashes of unexpected fallibility when their expensively assembled pistons don’t quite fire right.
It is that vulnerability which makes this such an exhilarating title race and why the visit of an unpredictable Liverpool side in Saturday’s early kick off is such a fascinating curtain raiser to the Premier League’s final act.
No team has consistently pressed City’s buttons like Liverpool in recent seasons and even these diminished Reds are capable of fitfully recapturing recent glories. Just ask Manchester United or even Guardiola himself, who was left infuriated after an October loss at Anfield. The probable absence of Haaland, allied with the unavailability of a recuperating Phil Foden, hands Jurgen Klopp’s inconsistent side hope.
Defeat would be unexpected for City but not out of the question in this capricious campaign. Guardiola always agitates for more from his players but this season he has often seemed simply agitated, picking fights with officials, his own fans and some of his best players.
Kevin de Bruyne is one of them, the City manager urging him earlier this month to “go back to basics” after admitting his soporific World Cup with Belgium had impacted his form.
So much flows through De Bruyne’s mercurial boots and there have been signs of late that he is starting to hit form, which is ominous for the rest of the Premier League. If he can rediscover consistency City can realistically win every single one of their remaining fixtures.
Realistically that is what they may have to do, such is the fearlessness of an Arsenal side who have passed every examination they have faced so far.
We shouldn’t forget the Champions League factor. Haaland was signed partly to address City’s relative underachievement in that competition and their April assignments with Bayern Munich loom large, potentially sapping energy and focus. When they do finally meet Arsenal at the Etihad on April 26, it will be their fifth game in a fortnight. Even for a squad that goes as deep as Guardiola’s, that could be a stretch.
Ominously for their rivals, work to address these shortcomings has begun.
Jude Bellingham is a preferred midfield target while Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister also features highly on their transfer wishlist. They are two of the most coveted players in Europe and City are one of the few teams who could realistically buy both, trade some of their unwanted blue chip assets and emerge with a significantly strengthened squad.
Their detractors point to the 115 Premier League charges for alleged financial misdemeanours which hang over City but the club have always insisted it will be “business as usual” this summer. Whether that sentiment extends to a third title in a row remains to be seen.