Pep Guardiola has made several contributions to the footballing lexicon but among the more famous is one he has come to regret. “The Harry Kane team,” his infamous description of Tottenham, was intended as a compliment but, as Guardiola himself would concede, was incorrect long before a Spurs side shorn of Kane scored three goals at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
It does, however, raise the possibility the same tactic can be used to brand his side. Erling Haaland may have scored 52 goals last season but there are days when Manchester City are “the Rodri team”. And if treble winners can be called a one-man team, they are a very different side without that one man. A 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa marked the fourth match Rodri has sat out due to suspension this season. City have lost all four.
They can feel further from curing their Rodri-dependencia. They mustered a mere two shots at Villa Park, the fewest ever attempted by a Guardiola side in a league match. And if a defensive midfielder might not seem integral to the attack, City have a lone goal in those four outings without Rodri. It is a sign of his ubiquity.
But Guardiola is not alone in believing Rodri is perhaps the best in the world in his position; such players, by their very definition, can be irreplaceable. His manager did not try to replace him, instead using central defenders to step into midfield. “He’s important but today we tried with Manu and John,” Guardiola said; Manuel Akanji and John Stones, at times, looked like old-fashioned wing-halves but sometimes it just gave City a back five. The Barnsley Beckenbauer’s comeback featured a Cruyff turn in the Villa box when he missed the ball altogether. It was not the only time when City lacked their usual composure. Normally dominance stems from their midfield. Not this time. “We have to accept it when a team is better and recognise it,” Guardiola said.
He can be a problem solver. Not this time. “It is my job when Rodri is not there to find a way to do it,” he added. He could not. He could have done with Douglas Luiz, a midfielder City once owned, loaned out, sold and whose buyback clause they never activated. Instead, the Brazilian was outstanding for Villa. Guardiola predictably left Kalvin Phillips as an unused substitute: his position at the back of the queue for midfield places remains entrenched. The £80m duo of summer signings, Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes, were summoned in the second half. The Croatian at least started well at City before falling out of favour. The Portuguese has had a negligible impact. At different points seven players – Rico Lewis, Julian Alvarez, Akanji, Stones, Bernardo Silva, Nunes and Kovacic – occupied roles in the centre against Villa but it felt as though City had the amazing disappearing midfield.
Which felt the least Guardiola of things. He is the manager who accumulated midfielders, who wanted a team full of them, who crowbarred them into the side as centre-backs and full-backs, false nines and ersatz wingers. Yet at Villa Park his starting pair, in front of his centre-backs, were a teenage full-back and a converted striker. They were scarcely Xavi and Iniesta.
His proteges were in Guardiola’s first two Champions League-winning sides. Six months after Istanbul, he was without his third Champions League-winning midfield in Birmingham. The injured Kevin De Bruyne has the talent to make something happen, the individual brilliance to compensate for collective failings, the personality to seize a game. Meanwhile, it may already be passe to say City missed Ilkay Gundogan, but in different games, they miss him in different ways. The captain was a chameleon as well as a talisman.
Without them, Rodri has been holding the midfield together. “With Rodri we could not win against Liverpool or Spurs,” Guardiola countered. Yet with Kovacic and Nunes looking like an £80m downgrade, with De Bruyne’s return probably still a month away, with the champions showing an uncharacteristic fragility, it falls to two holding midfielders to rejuvenate City’s title challenge: Rodri and Guardiola himself.
“We have to change the dynamic as soon as possible,” said Guardiola. Whether that involves changing the tactics, the personnel or the mood, he is casting around for a solution. “I have to sleep, I have to reflect, I have to see the games, how the players [did] with this one and try to do it. It’s my duty, my job to find a way to come back [from] the situation because over many years together we were able to find a way to play games – sometimes playing good, sometimes not but always we found a way to do it – and now we are struggling.” Those last few words are not a phrase Guardiola has often had to utter. But as, for once, he was a manager without a midfield, his side struggled.
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