Manchester City entered December completely in charge of the Premier League table. As I wrote at the end of November, the Sky Blues were own pace to at least match many of the astounding accomplishments of the 2017/18 campaign. They entered the Festive Season with no losses, a decisive victory in the Manchester Derby and a six-game winning streak since their tense 0-0 draw with second place Liverpool. They looked like they were in cruise control.
It’s Hard To be Perfect
When City stumbled against Chelsea at the beginning of the month, it was tempting to excuse the loss. Visiting Stamford Bridge isn’t supposed to be easy, and the Pensioners protect their home ground zealously. But there were some warning signs the next week at home against pesky mid-table stalwarts Everton. Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s 65th-minute shot found the back of the net and marked the third straight match that City had failed to keep a clean sheet.
Crystal Palace, shouldn’t have been a problem, the Eagles haven’t beaten City in Manchester in 28 years. Palace was a trendy pick to flirt with the top half of the table in the preseason based on last year’s surge out of the relegation zone in the second half. But December 22nd saw them sitting 14th, struggling to stay in the top flight.
Where Eagles Dare
Manchester City Dominated the opening 20 minutes, capped off by an Ilkay Gündogan header from a Fabian Delph cross. It was the big German midfielders fourth goal of the season, already matching his career high in the Premier League in half the appearances. The early strike threatened to presage another clinical dispatch of a lesser opponent that had made Citizen’s football a bit anticlimactic of late. But Crystal Palace decided to rip upon that script.
Jeffery Schlupp leveled the game minutes later with an almost casual strike into the bottom right. corner. Then in the 35th minute, City’s defenders failed to cleanly clear a set piece and the ball found the boot of Andros Townsend, who laced a stunning volley into the top right corner. Don’t skip clicking that link, it is a c candidate for Goal of the Year. Luka Milivojevic made it three with a penalty after Kyle Walker fouled Max Meyer in the box.
Despite a late score from Kevin DeBruyne, finally back on the pitch after his knee injury, Palace hung on for their first win at City since the waning days of the Thatcher Era.
One stumble against a mid-card jobber like Palace can be forgiven. Playing the perfect season is hard fleet. But two starts to look like a pattern. The Sky Blues Boxing Day opponents Leicester City had drunk from that bitter cup two weeks earlier with a 0-1 stinker that threatened to.blunt the Foxes recent surge into relevance. Leicester have also struggled in front of the home fans this season, and it looked bad when Bernardo Silva kicked off the scoring at the 14-minute mark.
Leicester were undaunted though, and once again City’s opening salvo was answered in short order with a Marc Albrighton header off a cross from Britain’s most aggrieved woodland creature (h/t Men in Blazers) Jaime Vardy. The second half was a chippy affair, with a few feelings hurt on both sides. The Foxes got a real energy boost when left midfielder Demarai Gray came on at the one hour mark. The fleet 22-year old was all over the ball in the closing third of the match. At 80 minutes he won. a free kick in City territory that led to Ricardo Periera’s gamer winner off of an ensuing corner. City kind of lost their cool after that, Fabian Delph was shown a red card and Gray almost netted a third Leicester goal before the referee blew the match to a close and the King Power stands erupted.
What’s the Problem?
Six of Pep Guardiola’s eleven Premier League losses have come during the holiday season, so he can be forgiven for any Grinch tendencies this time of year. But this feels like a lot more than an icy patch of December fixtures. The Sky Blues haven’t kept a clean sheet in the last nine games across all competitions. and they have lost three of their last four Premier League tilts.
Harry Gray at the analytic’s site Football Whispers sees a couple of issues. David Silva has been limited recently, and holding midfield stalwart Fernandinho hasn’t played since the Everton game. Combined with the extended absence of DeBruyne, the disruption of Pep’s precision midfield gameplans has resulted in his men covering unfamiliar territory on defense, and a relaxation of their usual stranglehold on possession. Demarai Gray especially seemed to frustrate the City defense in the last half hour on Wednesday night, he had them chasing his shadow at times.
It also drives home how unlikely last year’s performance was. It is hard to play a perfect season. plus the other teams are full of world class players who want to win things just as much as you. You can’t look past a Premier League side, that’s one of the reasons that English soccer is the most competitive big league in the world. No one has repeated as champions since Man U finished their treble run in 2008.
Liverpool Racing, Tottenham Chasing
Heading into the New Years week of fixtures, Manchester City sits in third place, seven points behind Liverpool and only a slim one-point lead over Tottenham Hotspur. Both Reds and Spurs are coming off convincing clobberings of exactly the kind of teams that City just surrendered to.
Liverpool has only conceded two goals in their last five games and just destroyed Newcastle 4-0 on Boxing Day. Spurs have been on a tear of late, tallying 11 goals in their last two matches, 6-2 over Everton and 5-0 over Bournemouth. Incredibly Handsome Man Harry Kane’s boys also have a lenient schedule coming up, whereas Liverpool and City are on a collision course for a January 3rd matchup to end the Festive Season. It could also spell the end to the Sky Blues title dreams if they can’t right the ship by then.
“From our Haus to Yours”