Manchester City are in the midst of their worst Premier League start under Pep Guardiola, despite the Spaniard only recently penning a new two-year contract extension at the Etihad.
A 2-0 loss to Spurs is the latest of a poor run of results that sees City sit in 13th place in the league at the time of writing.
The Sky Blues conceded the Premier League title to Liverpool last season after losing nine games and drawing three. It was a far cry from their record-breaking campaigns of seasons gone by.
It must beg the question – is Pep Guardiola’s time at Manchester City nearly up?
Even the best managers have a time limit at their clubs.
Think Mauricio Pochettino. He is still one of the best managers in world football, but Spurs knew that his Tottenham career had peaked when they sacked him midway through last season.
Sometimes, players need new faces and new ideas to remain stimulated in order to produce their best on the pitch.
The problem with successful teams is that the hunger can disappear over time.
It is impossible to get sick of winning, but it is possible that a need to win becomes merely a want to win. Less effort is put into the cause, be it consciously or otherwise.
Guardiola’s City 2.0 or merely an extension of the original?
If recent form is anything to go by, then perhaps this is the case for City.
However, the club’s owners and Pep himself clearly think they can reignite the players, as proved by the new deal he has signed.
In order to build a dynasty at a club, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United is the template to follow. He changed up the playing and coaching staff every few years to keep things fresh and maintain success.
It looks like Pep will have two years to rebuild and reinvigorate the squad, rather than expand the foundations already in place.
He has made a start already. Key figures in his original England-dominating side like Mikel Arteta, Vincent Kompany and David Silva have moved on.
City have some fantastic players in the squad. Yet it seems clear that they are a few players short in terms of their starting XI.
Of course, a regular starting line-up is fairly rare, and rightly so. Rotation is vital in order to compete on all fronts due to the sheer amount of games that top sides like City need to play.
But the managers of these top teams do need to have an idea of what their strongest side is for when they play the big games.
For example, if City were to play a Champions League final, would Pep know what his best team is? And if so, are there some players that he would feel that he could improve on?
A team that wants to be the best in the world should have one first-choice team that the manager backs to beat anyone. Pep Guardiola does not seem to have this right now.
Play the City way
First of all, Manchester City need to win the Champions League in the next two years. This is a necessity for the time to be considered an undoubted success.
The manager was brought in to try and help City become champions of Europe in order to cement themselves as a member of Europe’s elite. No matter how much they dominate domestic football, they cannot be seen as the best team in the world until they win the Champions League.
So if it means resting key players in the league the weekend before a knock-out European game, then so be it.
They’ve won domestic trebles, they’ve broken Premier League points records. For the next two years, what they do in the league won’t matter if they win the European Cup.
City have to back themselves to beat any team in the world. Yet for some reason, Guardiola over-complicates things at times by moving away from the 4-3-3 that has served him so well throughout his career.
Take the Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon in August. City failed to dispose of a side that finished seventh in the curtailed Ligue 1 season.
For some reason, Guardiola decided to play a 3-5-2. Yes, poor finishing and poor goalkeeping determined the outcome, but what was Pep’s reason for over-complicating? Why not back yourself and just do what you’re good at?
Take Liverpool for example. Jurgen Klopp plays the same system no matter who they play as he has confidence that it can beat every team on earth. Manchester City should be the same.
Even against Spurs, they destroyed them for 90 minutes. They played 4-3-3 and dominated the ball and the share of the chances. They had an xG of 1.66 to Tottenham’s 0.76.
Again, better finishing and being better prepared against the counter-attack would have seen City win the game comfortably. This has been the case for the majority of their lost games in the past two seasons.
So what do they do to ensure that they improve on these aspects? And more importantly, who do they sign to do it?
Sign a defensive midfield presence
If City can only solve one of the three issues that we will highlight, this has to be the one.
At their best, City had a midfield three of Fernandinho holding, with Kevin de Bruyne (or Bernardo Silva) and David Silva as advanced 8’s beside him.
Essentially, the Brazilian enforcer was superhuman to be able to cover for his partners. But not only was he an elite defensive presence, but he was also near perfect with the ball at his feet.
Unfortunately, age caught up to him and the now-35-year-old is more commonly found at centre-half.
Finding a direct replacement that is able to cover the ground he did, have the intelligence he did and move the ball as well as he did in midfield is near impossible, but City thought they had the man with Rodri.
The Spaniard is a decent player but does not defend enough to cover two attacking midfielders. His defensive numbers have dropped dramatically since his time at Atletico Madrid (4.2 tackles and interceptions in 18/19 to 2.1 in 19/20). He has clearly struggled with City’s much more open playing style.
Going forward, the club has two options: replace Rodri in the No 6 with someone that is capable of covering more ground or else sign a No 8 that can contribute more defensively to play alongside him.
Option A would resemble the de Bruyne, Fernandinho, Silva trio. Meanwhile, Option B would be closer in style to when Ilkay Gundogan plays.
Who should they sign?
When looking for the like-for-like Fernandinho replacement, one name kept coming up – Kalvin Phillips of Leeds United.
Phillips is tasked with doing similar to Fernandinho in the sense that he sits back while his midfield partners press more intensively. His defensive numbers are great this season, making 4.5 tackles and interceptions per game.
His is also a very useful passer, with an 84.3% pass success rate. The Englishman is well able to pull off a good long ball too.
Phillips is 24, homegrown and used to playing as a lone No 6 in a system very similar to City’s under Pep’s idol, Marcelo Bielsa.
The deal actually looks perfect on paper and City should have the money to make the signing. Especially if they offload Rodri.
De Bruyne has a few years left in him so could play to Phillips’ right, while Phil Foden is certainly worth giving minutes to on his left.
Bernardo Silva is a peculiar case. He was outstanding in 2018/19 playing in the advanced 8 role when de Bruyne was out injured. Yet he has not looked the same since and could actually be worth offloading if it means City can get in a more defensive presence.
If Pep puts his faith in Rodri, then signing a No 8 with good defensive numbers is a must.
The outstanding names here are Mikel Merino of Real Sociedad, who could also play as a 6, Manuel Locatelli of Sassuolo and Maxence Caquret of Lyon.
These players are averaging 4.1, 4.4 and 4.3 tackles and interceptions per game respectively this season.
Locatelli is the strongest passer of the three, while Merino’s Spanish nationality will probably make him an attractive option to Guardiola. At 20, Caqueret looks set for a magnificent future in the game.
So, it could come down to whoever comes cheapest.
Solve the left-back issue
While the midfield is the position that needs fixing the most, left-back is probably the area that City have the most obvious hole in.
Benjamin Mendy is the first choice there when fit. However, he rarely is.
He also does not look the same player as he did at Monaco. In fact, this is probably due to the large number of injuries he has suffered.
It could be best to cut their losses on him at this stage.
Joao Cancelo has deputized there in recent times and has actually played very well. Yet he is a right-footer and should begin phasing Kyle Walker out of the side at right-back soon enough.
A back four of Cancelo, Ruben Dias, Aymeric Laporte and a new left-back should be good enough to remain in place at City for a number of years.
Oleksander Zinchenko is good cover but is not good enough to play week-in, week-out.
Who should they sign?
The one outstanding name is AC Milan’s Theo Hernandez.
The Frenchman is a good age at just 23 and has displayed great ability going forward and in defence.
This season, he is making 3.1 tackles and interceptions per game in Serie A. His outstanding pace is probably the key reason for him being able to do so. This pace means that he would be able to get back to deal with any counter-attacks.
Hernandez is also fantastic going forward, with one goal and two assists in the league so far this season.
There are other left-backs performing very well this season, but Hernandez has proved himself at a good level for two seasons now.
If they decide against Hernandez, Owen Wijndal of AZ Alkmaar or Pevis Estupinan of Villarreal are both worth a look.
A post-Aguero Manchester City
While solving the midfield and left-back issues would help City’s counter-attack issue, the team certainly need a striker to solve their goalscoring one.
Of course, this is not an issue when Sergio Aguero is fit. But the Argentine striker is starting to pick up more and more injuries as time goes on. At 32, he realistically probably only has another season at the top level in him.
So the club need a plan for the future.
In fact, we wrote an article on Man City Central in July going through some options. In it, we brought up trusting in Gabriel Jesus, moving Raheem Sterling to the centre-forward role or signing a new superstar.
We decided that trusting in Jesus was the best option due to the fact that he is so good at getting himself into goalscoring locations. Yes, his lack of finishing frustrates City fans, but he is still young enough to improve this aspect.
So, for this reason, we think that it is worth keeping faith in the Brazilian.
If he improved his finishing, he could well be one of the very best strikers in the world. He had the highest xG in the Premier League last season with 21.02, despite only actually finding the net 14 times.
Injury means that Jesus has played only three league games this season, but he has scored two goals.
The 23-year-old has done enough to warrant at least one season as the starting striker of the post-Aguero era.
If he has still failed to deliver in two years time, then it will be time to think about moving him on and signing an elite finisher.