Pep Guardiola hit with reality check as debut Manchester City season reveals he isn't that special

A second defeat by Antonio Conte's Chelsea proves how far City are from winning the Premier League, and the only solution now is to buy in the summer in an effort to rid himself of the blame

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The Independent Football

As Antonio Conte was talking about how his team can now start counting down the wins they need to claim the title, Pep Guardiola was counting up the matches that have left his side so far away from the champions elect.

“The game at the Etihad [Chelsea’s 3-1 win in December] was a key point in our season in the Premier League. We arrived there four points behind, played much better, didn't have two penalties, created chances which we didn't take, then the red cards... Then it was seven points, then 10 after Leicester City [a 4-2 defeat].”

Now it is 14 points. It really doesn’t look good, for a manager that Conte conspicuously and humbly hailed as perhaps the best in the world. Even beyond the most significant fact that Guardiola is so low in the table and so out of the title race at this point of a season for the first time in his career - let alone that he has actually been out of it since January - there was the symbolism of this result on Wednesday. It marked the first time in the Catalan’s career that he has lost two league games in the same season to the same manager, with the fact it was the manager of the likely title winners - the status that Guardiola was expected to rise to - only further emphasising what a reality check this has all been.

Premier League round-up: Chelsea take a big step towards title win

One common perspective is that it proves how so much of his success was down to the teams he had, and the way he has so struggled with an inferior squad in a league with more competitive clubs shows he isn’t that special. That is a perspective bolstered by that table, where they are a long way off. There can be no debate that he is under-performing, since he really should have been challenging for the title properly.

There can be plenty of debate over whether that is anything to be concerned about, because the perspective from the pitch is very different. There, City genuinely don’t look that far off. They often look utterly brilliant in attack, combining a kaleidoscopic collective co-ordination with intricate individual instinct. It was much the same for many moments of this match, meaning this match was much the same as so many others this season. It actually feels like we’ve already seen this City game about 10 times this season, and that if little moments had gone a different way, it could have made a sizeable difference to their season. It could have, as Guardiola argued, seen them properly challenge.

But how can you really square that with the reality that they are so far away from Chelsea on points? As with Manchester United, if these misses and little moments have such a disproportionate effect, it probably means the problem is greater than such quirks of fate. It really doesn’t just come down to the finishing.

The issue with City still feels like Guardiola hasn’t fully squared his idea for the team. They play with the attacking pace he would want, but don’t have the midfield base to really make it work. There is no central midfielder to give them that “control” Guardiola has so favoured in the past, meaning a manager whose teams are usually metronomic are instead involved in games that spin so fast it feels anything can happen. What usually happens is that City create a lot of chances but also concede a lot, meaning they can’t quite intimidate opposition in the way they probably should given what they can do attack.

That means he has to do the most obvious thing of all in management: buy. That also opens up a whole lot of debate over whether City were well equipped enough to do what he wanted, or whether a manager with Guardiola’s reputation should really have been able to do more anyway.

Premier League round-up: Chelsea take a big step towards title win

It’s again a bit of both.

City should have done much more this season. But they look like they’re going to be capable of more quite soon.

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