Pep Guardiola’s side could get away with the odd poor performance for the final six months of last season but this time around it is a different story
There are a couple of reasons to be optimistic for Manchester City on Saturday, amid the doom and gloom of an unexpected and thoroughly deserved defeat against Crystal Palace at the Etihad Stadium.
One is that the Premier League title is still handed out in May. The other is that the last time a team top of the table at Christmas didn’t go on to win the league was Liverpool five years ago. In fact, only twice in the past 10 seasons has a team not lifted the title after being top on December 25 and both times it has been Liverpool.
So that’s something to cling to as the bones are picked out of an uncharacteristically poor performance from the champions.
The performance was indeed so disjointed there will be a forensic analysis of what went wrong. Especially set against the backdrop of Liverpool’s fine form and what seems to be an improvement week upon week.
Are the problems for City isolated to Saturday’s match – when Palace scored from their first two shots on target, one of them perhaps the goal of the season – or have they been signposted for weeks to come?
Just as conversations were being had that City had improved as a team upon last season, they have started leaking goals. From the joint best defensive record in Europe to one clean sheet in their last eight league games.
City have not quite been at their best in recent weeks and problems with form and fitness are at the root of it. This was especially true on Saturday.
They coped without De Bruyne well for his first long lay-off but they have seemed to miss him more so second time around, especially considering injuries to Sergio Aguero, David Silva and, particularly pertinent to Saturday, Fernandinho.
City have hardly been playing badly but there has to come a time when even City miss four world class players.
And form-wise, Kyle Walker has been struggling for a few weeks, while Nicolas Otamendi has not been as dependable as he became during last season.
Combine all of that and you have an outfit considerably less slick than last season’s record-breakers.
The worry as far as Saturday is concerned, alongside the absence of key players and poor form of two of the back four, is that City barely had any response to Palace’s goals.
The hosts started slowly (not for the first time) but found a way through thanks to Ilkay Gundogan’s header. Usually that would be enough to seal the three points. In fact, they would usually be confident of winning even if the visitors drew level, as they did when Jeffrey Schlupp fired in Palace’s first shot of the afternoon. That came after Aymeric Laporte and John Stones, an unconvincing central midfielder on the day, missed tackles and Walker was easily outfoxed.
Yet it was Palace who struck again, with the type of goal you can’t really fault – other than the fact Stones missed another tackle before Roy Hodgson’s men won the free-kick that was headed out as far as Andros Townsend, who absolutely leathered a volley into the top corner from more than 20 yards.
These things can happen in a game and City still had time to turn it around, especially with De Bruyne, Aguero and Riyad Mahrez on the bench. Aguero entered first, for Otamendi, but Palace struck again. Walker gave away a penalty after Townsend struck the post with a free header.
Aguero had no time to make an impact before it went to 3-1 but the biggest surprise was that he didn’t afterwards, either. De Bruyne came on for Fabian Delph as Pep Guardiola went for it but the onslaught never really came.
Palace sat back and City could not unpick them. There were barely even chances to unpick them, given there was so little structure to the game at this point that City’s huge amounts of possession did not add up to a concerted attempt at pulling their opponents all across the pitch.
Leroy Sane struck a post with a long-range free kick but that was it until De Bruyne scored with what he intended to be a cross. Gabriel Jesus put a header over the bar in stoppage time but you could hardly say a draw would’ve been a fair result, even if Palace’s goals had a feel of smash-and-grab about them.
Comparisons to last season are inevitable but not especially helpful, given the amount of injuries to key players and the overall run of good results. This is hardly a crisis, and even if it were there would be legitimate reasons for it.
The biggest and most worrying difference compared to last season is that there’s a challenger this time around. For the last six months of last season City could throw in the odd duff performance and it would make no difference.
This time, Liverpool’s presence ensures every result counts.
The Reds are top at Christmas, clear of City by four points, and the moods at the top two clubs could not be more different right now.
But there is a long way to go, and if any team can turn it around, it’s City. And history suggests that if any team can throw it away, it’s Liverpool.
Either way, we’re set for a fascinating second half of the season.