With a comeback win at Hoffenheim, Manchester City managed to avenge their opening night defeat to Lyon in the Champions League. However, there are still plenty of doubts about City’s ability to fight on two fronts.
Pep Guardiola’s men began the 2018/19 season as favourites to lift the Champions League, but a shock home defeat on matchday one saw their odds lengthen drastically. The exact cause of this perceived ‘downturn’ is a matter of opinion, but there several reasons that cannot be denied.
Why Have Manchester City Looked So Unconvincing in the Champions League This Season?
Fighting on Two Fronts
Even though City remain runaway favourites on SportingIndex.com to win the Premier League, they are now only second-favourites to win the Champions League. Firstly, the Premier League title race is set to be much closer than the formality it was last season, and nobody can underestimate just how this can psychologically impact a team involved in European football.
This was especially evident in the way City began their win over Hoffenheim. It was a cruel twist of fate that City should face an away game, against a determined Champions League debutant, mere days before a potential title decider against Liverpool – and one taking place at a ground from which they are apparently incapable of taking a win.
In part, this would explain much about City’s slow start, in which Ishak Belfodil put Hoffenheim ahead inside the first minute. While it took City only seven minutes to draw level through Sergio Aguero, the amateurishness of the City defence for the opening goal was not lost on anyone, least of all Guardiola. No Champions League winner in history has ever lifted the big one by making such grievous errors a habit, but as events transpired, it would become a mere footnote as City grew into the game and made their class tell.
Reliance on Aguero and De Bruyne
A product of his dynamic chemistry with Leroy Sane, Aguero’s equaliser illustrated exactly what a complacent City side had missed in the opening defeat to Lyon. Now thirty years old, Aguero is as powerful as ever, but his ability to start twice a week is waning fast. With Gabriel Jesus yet to really make an impact this season, Guardiola is without a different focal point in attack, instead relying purely on the attacking instinct possessed by Leroy Sane, as well as Raheem Sterling on the opposite flank.
Ever since smashing a glorious brace past Swansea on his club debut back in August 2011, Aguero’s ability to influence matches and terrorise opposition has been ever present. However, he is barely half the player he can be without Kevin De Bruyne in support, and it is no coincidence that the duo have been nominated for the Ballon d’Or. At times in 2017/18, De Bruyne’s range of passing, influence between boxes and venomous shooting was without equal. It is impossible to imagine City hitting 100 points without him and at times he even made the likes Eden Hazard and Dele Alli look like rank amateurs.
Ultimately, it stands to reason that the Belgian’s absence is affecting City for the worse, but so too will the pressures of being favourites in every competition.
Weight of Expectation
It would be insulting to think that Guardiola’s men cannot cope with any sort of pressure, having achieved a century of points after being favourites ahead of 2017/18.
Regardless of how dominant City become, there will always be inevitable comparisons to the teams that have won the Champions League in the post-expansion era (1992-present), especially if they have done so multiple times. This only creates the ‘negative’ type of pressure, which can force mistakes out of even the best players, rather than the ‘positive’ type that City generally thrive upon.
That ‘negative’ pressure is especially dangerous for a team like Guardiola, which can pass a team to death, but not with undue verbosity. The way City play from the back is very pleasing on the eye but one mistake in a pass from the defence is always asking for trouble once the knockouts (with the away goal rule invoked) are underway.
A relatively young squad, subject to frequent rotation, can be heaven or hell for a team with the desire to finally win Europe’s highest honour, after years of investment into the best of the best. The fine line between triumph and failure is one that takes years for any squad to master and while City have been less convincing than usual so far, it would be very reactionary – and foolish – to dismiss this foray into the Champions League as a write-off.