City were heavily reliant on Fernandinho before his injury and have suffered without him, and Pep Guardiola must maintain confidence until he returns
Manchester City have not become a bad team overnight. A large part of their recent woes is down to the simple fact that they have been without Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne.
City have proven capable of coping without one of their three most influential midfielders, but with Fernandinho plus one or more of the other two missing they have become less potent in attack and exposed in defence.
With De Bruyne not at peak fitness and Silva on the sidelines in the last two games, the City attack has been starved of the usual quality service. There have been few of the close-knit passing combinations that carve open defences in wide areas, with Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling looking isolated and trying to break through the opposition with dribbles.
They have been frustrated and City have turned to crossing – 30 from open play against Palace, 26 against Leicester, their highest tallies of the season. Only six were successful in the first game, not a single one in the second.
And with City’s opponents finding it easier to defend against them, there have been plenty of opportunities for them to counter-attack. Without Fernandinho, who is so adept at stopping those breaks, City’s defence has been probed with far more regularity.
There were signs even before the defeat at Chelsea that the Brazilian had been asked to work much harder this season than last.
Stats presented by Football Whispers showed that the 33-year-old averaged five defensive actions (tackles and interceptions) per game between the end of September and the end of November, compared to just 1.8 per game between January and mid-September.
In that period City’s opponents were enjoying more moves of five or more passes per game, more possession sequences reaching the final third and more moves starting in the defensive third to reach five or more passes.
Perhaps Guardiola’s men have not been pressing so intensely this season, or perhaps they have been but opponents are finding ways to beat it. Perhaps De Bruyne’s ingenuity and industry has been missed more than anybody thought.
Whatever the reason, City were more than getting away with it – they were top of the league, after all – when Fernandinho was there to put out the fires. Without him, deputies John Stones and Ilkay Gundogan have not been able to do his dirty work and Nicolas Otamendi, Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph, in particular, have struggled under the increased scrutiny, costing City goals.
Fernandinho may not return against Southampton on Sunday but with Silva and De Bruyne in the side, City will be a much more potent attacking force. And when the Brazilian does return, the Blues will become stronger in all areas.
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But City need results fast if they are to stay in the title race, and just as they have not become a bad team overnight, the nature of their recent defeats means they will not necessarily become an excellent one again as soon as those three return to the starting XI.
Guardiola does not expect the answer to lie in the transfer market. The Catalan has already ruled out the possibility of any new faces arriving next month, although it is understood that he is not 100 per cent on board with the idea.
Sources have told Goal that Guardiola is pushing his employers to make a move for a new left-back, with Leicester’s Ben Chilwell high on his list.
That is regarded as unlikely, however, as is a move for a midfield reinforcement to ease the burden on Fernandinho. It is believed that City’s preferred targets are not currently for sale.
Instead, Guardiola has been working with his squad to ensure their heads do not drop ahead of their next two potentially crucial fixtures.
“Good results make miracles in the mind,” he said after the defeat at Leicester. “All games are about the mind. We are the same, we practice little details as we did last season and in our three years together. Now there will be doubts.”
The players who have been fully fit and available have underperformed in the past two games – even if their jobs have been made harder – and Guardiola must ensure they continue to believe in themselves if City are to avert a full-on crisis over the next seven days.
Despite public protestations, the Catalan has not been happy with what he has seen from his players of late, and he called them in for extra training on Christmas Eve following defeat against Crystal Palace.
“We trained one day more because we needed to practice something we didn’t do properly, but I am not a guy [to shout in the] bad moments. It is when I am closer. Last season, I was more serious with my players because when you win the tendency is to relax. In [this] situation, they need support and they need to be together.”
His priority since Leicester has been to build confidence: “It doesn’t matter where we finish, the joy and pleasure of how many things they did in the recent past means I will never doubt those guys. I have to reflect, think about what the team needs and how to help them. That is what I am concerned about in the next few days. I need to help the players to come back with the way we want to play.”
A loss of belief has been an issue at City in recent years, even last season. John Stones and Gabriel Jesus, for example, have previously concerned the coaching staff with crises of confidence following poor runs of individual form.
And following City’s sticky run in April, when they lost to Manchester United and twice to Liverpool in the Champions League, Guardiola pin-pointed several players who need to do better in key moments, including Otamendi and Walker. On recent evidence they have not improved, and neither featured at Leicester.
It has also emerged that some players have become frustrated with Guardiola’s squad rotation this season.
The Catalan has been trying to keep his players fresh for the second half of the season, but they need results now. Results – and the mood in the camp – will surely pick up if De Bruyne and Silva start at Southampton on Sunday, even if Fernandinho does not, and surely there is no better ground than St Mary’s Stadium to remind the players of better days.
After all, that is where they clinched their 100-point season, courtesy of Jesus’s last-minute winner.
Yet given the situation City are in right now, they need not set their sights on replicating May’s exploits. November’s form will do, even if it means Fernandinho will be a busy man when he eventually returns.