12 January 2023

Are Man City too bored to bother with silverware anymore?

Okay, so it was "only" the League Cup, a trivial trophy that most big clubs with the same respect and consideration that they reserve for a weeks-old sandwich found at the back of the fridge, but there's still something to consider in Man City's surprise loss to Southampton in last night's quarterfinal. Yes, Southampton were certainly up for it, as they're in the basement and penciled in for relegation already. However, for as eager as they might have been, they are, well, in the basement and penciled in for relegation already. As if the scoreline wasn't damning enough, consider this: Man City had more foul throws than shots on target. Has this squad gotten so tired of winning that they can't be bothered anymore?

They did dominate possession to the tune of 72%, but there was no edge, no hunger, no desire. It was sterile. Guardiola didn't mince his words:

Today was not even close to what we are. We were not prepared to play in this competition to get to the semi-finals. We were not ready. The better team won. We didn't play good, we didn't play well in the beginning. There are many games you can start not good and overcome and we didn't do it. When you are not prepared to play this game you arrive one inch late and don't score a goal. When you are prepared you score the goal.

Guardiola does not take this competition lightly. Man City have won it five times in the seven years since he took the reins. Yes, he rested de Bruyne and Haaland, but he threw them on in a desperate attempt to fight back. Despite the vast chasm in class between each side's starters, City never looked interested, much less able, to overcome their overmatched hosts. That's obviously not an issue of skill or tactics; it's an issue of desire.

Man City have glutted themselves on silverware for years, all the more so under Guardiola: four-time winners of the Prem, five-time winners of the League Cup, and just one FA Cup (thanks in no small part to us). That has to breed a certain diffidence or ennui among the players. Perhaps admitting as much, Guardiola took uncharacteristic steps during the summer,  selling several key players to direct rivals (with us taking Jesus and Zinchenko and Chelsea settling for Raheem Sterling) and actually turned a net profit on transfer fees for the first time since 2006. Guardiola admitted that "the market was strange for us. Normally we are a team that buys and didn’t sell much. This summer for different reasons, we sell some players."

Fresh blood should rejuvenate the squad, right? Hungry players should infect the rest of the squad with their hunger and challenge jaded members for time on the pitch. It hasn't really happened. Despite Haaland erupting for 21 goals so far, City as a whole seem to have lost the aura of invincibility that on its own probably won countless matches before the players even left the locker room.

Now, they are still on a pace to take 87 points, enough to win the Prem in most seasons, and we underestimate them at their peril. Still, Guardiola himself seems to sense that something's got to give. An obsessive, compulsive manager averse to unpredictability, he's talked about "'ridiculous ideas" and doesn't have a clear lineup in mind for this weekend's derby at Old Trafford. Those are not the musings of a notorious overthinker who likes to micromanage down to the last detail. In addition to a squad-wide sense of malaise, Guardiola has to suspect that his players, even the new-ish ones, may be tiring of hearing the same voice for so long. It's something that's been wondered aloud about other managers like Klopp, whose own squad seems disinterested at best.

Of course, we'll find out soon enough just how much water this colander-esque theory of mine can hold when we go to the Etihad on 28 January for the FA Cup fourth round. It may not quite be as much of a white whale to Guardiola as the Champions League is, but it is a trophy that's been almost as hard for him to grasp. Will our young, hungry, but thin squad have enough to defeat City's deeper, more-experienced, but sated one? Time will tell, I suppose.

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