There is a little spark missing from Manchester City at the moment, the understandable result of injuries to several key players and the fact that they are being compared to the end of last season, when they stormed to three trophies, and not the beginning of last season — this time last year — when they were also waiting for things to click.
City were good against Liverpool at the weekend but at their best they would have blasted them away, like they did when they won 4-1 in April — the first time they won three league games in a row last season, highlighting that even the treble-winning vintage needed some time to mature.
City at their best would not have been involved in a 4-4 at Chelsea, either, and never in a million years would they have put in the first half display that they did on Tuesday night, as they went in at half-time trailing RB Leipzig 2-0.
It was one of the worst performances of the Pep Guardiola era and as the whistle blew for the break you could hear the confused grumbles around the Etihad Stadium as the fans asked each other, ‘What was all that about?’.
Guardiola wondered, too. He was asked afterwards if he ever doubts his team in those moments. “I was not sure, to be honest,” he said. “The way we were playing in the first half I was not sure. You have to earn it but in the first half we did not, even at times in the second half. But yeah we learned, we learned. Hopefully.”
His team only needed a point to seal top spot in the group and he said that if they had needed to win they would not have played like they did, raising the idea that his players were not fully on it, and he drew more direct attention to their fallibility on duels and second balls. “We have had two warnings already,” he said, referencing that game at Stamford Bridge.
Guardiola is usually at pains to point out his side’s excellence, especially if he feels others have taken it for granted, but even he could not hide (or perhaps did not want to) the fact that they were nowhere near their usual levels.
Rarely had Rodri looked so wayward, surrendering possession left, right and centre. Manuel Akanji simply let Lois Openda run through to score the visitors’ first and Ruben Dias made only a slightly better stab at it, but still got rolled fairly easily. “Sloppy goals,” Guardiola called them.
Nobody covered themselves in glory. Guardiola tried to change things up in the first half by keeping Akanji in defence rather than midfield, pushing Kyle Walker up the wing and bringing Bernardo Silva inside to make a trio with Rico Lewis and Phil Foden, but Leipzig kept crowding them out as they had done before.
The visitors’ mastery of transitions was evident: they stayed compact and then, when they won the ball back, they were ready to combine with quick passes to find somebody breaking through at speed.
Guardiola has come up with some defensive gameplans to combat that threat in the past, ones that have bored some fans, but they were belatedly vindicated on Tuesday, not that that would have consoled him as he rubbed his head and pondered what on Earth he was witnessing as the last few minutes of the half descended into shambles.
Dias risked a second yellow when he committed a foul in the centre-circle which stopped Leipzig running clean through on goal again. The City boss suggested his team have been ‘anxious’ recently and wondered why Dias had raised his foot so high to get his first booking. The Portuguese struggled at Chelsea, too, but in those final five or six minutes before the break he was far from the only one flailing.
City had created four very good chances despite their struggles but the game had become a mess.
And yet victory was never in doubt, was it?
The start of the second half began with the intensity of when tennis players have a rally before the first set, but then Guardiola brought on Jeremy Doku and Julian Alavrez for Jack Grealish and Kyle Walker.
Immediately — and it was immediate — Erling Haaland scored.
Lewis had moved to right-back, but in reality that meant staying high in midfield, just this time he was playing with Foden and Alvarez with Bernardo providing more attacking threat than Walker, with the small matter of Doku on the other side and Haaland in front.
“I told the guys that we made them angry in the first half and that’s what we saw in the second half,” Leipzig manager Marco Rose said.
Foden must have been angrier than anybody: he was lucky to stay on the pitch when the changes were made but he played the through ball to Haaland and then scored the equaliser. He had struggled more than anybody amid Leipzig’s tight lines and snappy pressure but given an inch of space in the box he produced two neat touches and rolled the ball into the corner like it was training.
He was heavily involved in the third, too, bringing the ball under his spell in another tight spot inside the box. His low cross was deflected but City had ramped up the pressure enough for the ball to fall their way for once: Alvarez arrived, kept his cool and fired in.
The Argentinean had combined well with Foden for City’s first goal, too, and that was after receiving a fine ball from Rodri. The midfielder’s struggles continued all evening as Leipzig continued to break, but he was still capable of sublime moments. Akanji, Nathan Ake, who had replaced Dias at half, and Josko Gvardiol rallied behind him.
The changes had worked, things improved (although did not exactly click) and City got the victory that everybody expected, in a way that nobody could have foreseen.
“Maybe for the future it’s good,” Guardiola hoped. “To win not comfortably and show we can make a comeback, to be in front of the mirror and realise that we have to be better.”
Something is a little off at the minute, for sure, but things normally come together for City.
(Top photo: Ryan Crockett/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)