Pep Guardiola contemplated a landscape he has not seen before. “We have a big rival 22 points ahead,” he said. “And that’s not good.”
The Premier League table has been shaped by Liverpool’s extraordinary run, but also by his own side’s unforeseen difficulties. Manchester City were the team who disappeared into the distance. Now Liverpool are the dot on the horizon for everyone else. “We did something incredible and Liverpool is doing it now,” Guardiola added. “We cannot deny the distance is big: 22 points. We didn’t expect it but we have to respect it.”
Virtually everyone is affected by sporting cycles. “Except for [Roger] Federer, [Rafa] Nadal and [Novak] Djokovic,” Guardiola said. As he underlined ahead of Sunday's home game with West Ham, footballing fortunes can shift with sudden speed.
“Two years ago, we were 25 points ahead of them [Liverpool],” he said. In one sense, it has not been a problem of personnel. “This group of players won something unique,” Guardiola noted: five domestic titles out of six, a historic treble, a Premier League title with 100 points.
Only Vincent Kompany of the pivotal players has left and if the captain’s leadership has been missed, Guardiola also noted how, though his appearances were sporadic, his finest form was outstanding.
"During the season, Vinnie didn’t play much because of the injuries and always during the last two and a half months, he was always the best central defender in the world,” he said.
City lost a centre-back partnership in weeks. Aymeric Laporte’s knee problem has restricted him to one game since August and City have already conceded more league goals than in either of Guardiola’s two title-winning seasons.
John Stones, who has had a difficult campaign, did not even make the bench at Tottenham last Sunday. “It is not easy for him,” said Guardiola. Left-back Benjamin Mendy is another who has had a stop-start season with injuries part of his problem.
But Laporte is indispensable. City have only been beaten in four of the Frenchman’s 49 league games. They have lost six of the last 20 when he has not featured. Liverpool’s form is such that they probably would have been champions anyway but for City, the title has been lost in the penalty boxes. They have had the most shots and conceded the fewest. They have had the most possession with the highest pass completion rate. And yet there are times when statistical domination has brought defeats or draws.
“Of course, we drop points we should not drop,” added Guardiola. “We cannot win when we miss and they arrive once [in the box] and score.”
Two meetings with Tottenham this season have been cases in point: City had 48 shots in total, scored two and got one point. Spurs had six shots on target, ending up with four goals and four points. Wolves won 2-0 at the Etihad Stadium with two shots on target. Crystal Palace and Newcastle got 2-2 draws and Norwich won 3-2 with three attempts each on target.
It looks a statistical freak, especially given Ederson’s excellence, though Claudio Bravo’s save percentage this season is a lowly 53, but it does suggest opponents are getting chances of quality, though not in quantity.
There have been defensive issues further up the pitch: City have pressed less intensely as David Silva has declined and Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri do not always cut out counter-attacks in midfield in the way Fernandinho did. Wolves, Palace, Norwich and Liverpool have all caught City on the break to score.
But the fact City brought up a century of goals in all competitions in January shows how prolific they can be. What they have not been is consistently clinical. “We’ve scored a lot but I don’t know why we are missing chances,” reflected Guardiola. “I didn’t see one game where we were much worse.”
Instead, creativity has led to profligacy at times. It has not helped that City are scoring fewer of their trademark goals, close-range finishes from low crosses, or that Raheem Sterling had not scored in eight games before being injured.
Guardiola is reluctant to use Leroy Sane’s absence as an excuse, but his last two seasons produced 20 goals and 25 assists in the Premier League. Factor in a slight drop-off from David Silva and Bernardo Silva’s struggles to replicate last season’s brilliance and Kevin de Bruyne has shouldered a bigger burden
Guardiola has remained defiant, praising his players and defending his style of play. “I am proud,” he added. “I like what they do.” The challenge is to add ruthlessness if they are to regain the title next year.