The Missing Piece in City: Pep’s Peculiar Situation -
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The Missing Piece in City: Pep’s Peculiar Situation

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Pep Guardiola with Kevin De Bryune. 

Adarsh Jha

New Delhi: The high-intensity battle between arch-rival managers Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp stood upon its promise of being a reckless roller-coaster. The fans at the Etihad were thrilled and pumped as Earling Haaland, the menacing striker for Manchester City, found the back of the net in the 27th minute, assisted by a brilliant dribble by Nathan Ake. The strike gave City a comprehensive top position on the league table. After trailing for a few weeks behind Tottenham Hotspurs, the defending Premier League champions secured their apex spot again.

Pep Guardiola.

The dominance of Pep Guardiola in the English football arena has been dethroned only once since the 2017/18 season, and that was done by none other than Klopp’s Liverpool in the 2019/20 season.

In the Saturday thriller against his closest opponent, Pep once again gave signs that he was in no mood to let his grip over the league title slip. In this campaign, the most potent weapon unleashed by him has been the Norwegian star, Earling Haaland. Since his arrival from Borussia Dortmund in 2022, he has registered himself as the fastest to score 50 Premier League goals, which he did in 48 appearances, breaking the record formerly held by English striker Andrew Cole, who attained the feat in 65 appearances. In his first season at City, Haaland played a pivotal, if not the most pivotal, role in securing a treble for the club and making Pep Guardiola the only manager to win a complete European continental treble twice. For his magnificent performance last year, Haaland became a close contender for the coveted Ballon d’Or, sadly losing out to arguably the greatest footballer of all time, Lionel Messi, who completed his trophy cabinet by lifting the prestigious FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

However, he marches on again with 14 goals till now, cruising clear past the second-highest scorer in the league till now, Salah, with 10 goals. As the game progressed in the final 10 minutes, Trent Alexander Arnold, who had a tenuous day battling Doku, shot a precise kick, landing the ball behind City’s net. The scores leveled at that point remained the same till the final whistle. A draw at home, preceded by another draw against Chelsea, jeopardized the top spot for title defenders. Hours later, Arsenal, with a clear 1-0 win at home over Brentford, snatched it. The unusual blockade in capitalizing on chances was brightly clear today as Liverpool’s goalkeeper Allison kept on fumbling in clearances, yet none of City’s men could get their names on the scoresheet. Alvarez missed the most, followed by Foden’s poor shot at Allison’s inaccurate straight pass to him. In the absence of Kevin De Bruyne’s artistry, who suffered a grade three hamstring tear, Manchester City has experienced a palpable downturn in creativity. Their failure against Arsenal and stalemate in front of Chelsea and Liverpool may cost them in the long run. Before the international break, they went with the same team against Chelsea as they did against Liverpool. Since Haaland’s arrival, Guardiola’s approach has changed a bit on possession, as the former’s presence in the penalty box and clinical finishing gave them a formidable direct goal threat factor. However, that stood in the way of De Bruyne’s excellent assisting abilities. Julian Alvarez in his position resembles more of a version of Haaland with his higher inclination to take direct shots compared to making box passes using quality control and optimized decision-making in the final third, like De Bruyne. De Bruyne’s skill and vision have consistently proven to be the catalyst for turning the tide in City’s favor, particularly when facing an opponent that specializes in low block defense. Bernardo Silva outperformed his teammates and provided the much-needed control over the game amidst the pacy chaos, yet it wasn’t enough for Pep’s team to sail through. With one-third of the season complete, the defending champions are back to a very similar position as they were for the majority of time on last year’s league table, trailing Arsenal for the top spot with a better goal difference statistic. Given the absence of De Bruyne and the dwindling fitness of other key players like John Stones, Guardiola would primarily focus on sticking to the status quo and not dropping further down, with the hope of going all guns blazing once he has his entire squad at his disposal in the final leg of the season.

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