That was more like it. Sure, Manchester City’s 2-2 draw against Tottenham on Saturday was on one hand frustratingly disappointing, seeing as the Citizens completely dominated Spurs and, barring some poor finishing, even worse refereeing, and a couple ill-timed defensive lapses, could’ve and should’ve been an easy City victory. On the other, the performance itself was an encouraging riposte to the torrent of criticism the team had faced of both the legitimate and ridiculous variety on the heels of their recent struggles. The latter is what made the match closer to what we expected to see from this mega-rich, supremely expensive, Best Manager In The World™-led bunch. It’s something of a shame, then, that the game very well could’ve prevented Man City from doing what they need to do in order to be truly great.
Coming into the match, City were under siege. To a certain extent, this made sense. Here was a team that spent nearly £150 million in the summer ostensibly to freshen up a roster that was old three seasons ago so that new coach Pep Guardiola would have the tools to work his magic; and yet, the team hadn’t been good enough. Despite this £150 million outlay—much of that money spent with the specific intention to lure the itinerant and in-demand Guardiola to northern England with a squad perfect for his style of play—City’s roster has glaring deficiencies.
The team’s midfield is garbage; in the most important area of the pitch for a Guardiola team, City have a single elite natural central midfielder in Fernandinho, with the man who should’ve been their star in the middle of the park, new addition İlkay Gündoğan, already out for the season because he is literally always injured. Their selection of central defenders is barren and bad; they’ve got just two consistently healthy center backs, the undisciplined Nicolás Otamendi and the massive defensive liability John Stones, with the third man up behind those two being goddamn Aleksandar Kolarov, a full back who’s played as much on the left wing in recent seasons as in his natural position of left back because he’s so suspect while defending. To top it off, their collection of full backs is damn near geriatric; Kolarov, Gaël Clichy, Bacary Sagna, and Pablo Zabaleta, in probably the most physically demanding position on the pitch, are all at least 31 years old.
Worst of all, these holes in midfield and defense were painfully obvious to anyone who’d had even a cursory glance at a their roster, and still the team’s leadership and manager did practically nothing to remedy the situation in the summer. Besides the almost £50 million they threw at Everton for Stones and the £20 million they gave Borussia Dortmund for the privilege of being disappointed by the perpetually injured Gündoğan’s long absences from the pitch, the team did not address their numerous and obvious shortcomings in a meaningful way. Instead, they dropped off dump trucks of cash for (the admittedly very good and promising) attackers Leroy Sané, Gabriel Jesus, and Nolito. Yes, City unloaded much of their considerable coffers to reinforce the one area of the pitch where they were already overstocked.
That City have struggled of late, finding themselves fifth in the table, most likely out of the title race 12 points behind runaway Chelsea, and under near-constant assailment by the media and public, must be considered a comprehensive failure, borne primarily of their own lack of foresight. That is where the board erred, and where Guardiola himself erred—by not accurately assessing the status of their squad and doing something about it when they had the money and the chance.
(Now, the over-the-top, gleeful relish many in the English media have received City’s and particularly Guardiola’s purported downfall—or the “Fraudiola” phenomenon, as if failing to win each and every match in his first year at a new club in a new league with a comically unbalanced squad is proof that, actually, winning a roomful of trophies in Spain and Germany while being at the forefront of a veritable tactical revolution that changed how the sport is played and thought about isn’t all that impressive—has been incredibly dumb, of course. But the reasons why this is so particularly stupid—how it reveals England’s simultaneous arrogance and insecurity when it comes to soccer, the country’s xenophobia, their prioritization of ever-shifting surface narratives and disinterest in depth and nuance and understanding, and the sport’s general flawed conception of the all-knowing and omnipotent Super Manager—are too obvious and tedious to belabor.)
In spite of all these evident problems, City are still really good. The Tottenham game made this clear again, though there had been many instances early to serve as evidence that Guardiola and the players are still able to take all these odds and ends and craft the odd masterpiece out of it. Think about this: Man City started the Spurs match with three full backs on the pitch, four attacking midfield/winger-types, a striker, and an old and immobile midfielder tasked with protecting the defense, one who for years has been completely uninterested in any kind of defensive work, and ran one of the best, most physically dominant Premier League teams off the pitch.
Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva starred, as they have all season, when thrust into roles as the advanced two midfielders ahead of Yaya Touré. Sané and Raheem Sterling stayed high and wide on the wings, resisting their natural urges to drift and cut inside so as to widen the space Spurs had to cover and allow their aging full backs to sit deeper and focus on snuffing Tottenham’s counters, and the whole team helped the defense with their commitment to intense and coordinated high pressing. It was a superbly played and coached match that, even though it culminated in a single point rather than the three it deserved, did a whole lot to reassert City’s claim to being one of England’s elite, and decrease the pressure on everyone at the club.
The risk, however, is that performances like this might trick those in charge into believing there’s enough there already to compensate for the deep fissures in City’s foundation. This would be shortsighted. In order to have any realistic hope of pushing Chelsea for the title this year, or even to cement themselves as a sure-fire top-four team in this highly competitive league where six teams are sure to gnash and claw all season long for one of those coveted Champions League places, Man City will probably need a central midfielder or two, a couple starting-caliber full backs, and at least a solid rotation-quality center back. And probably a new goalkeeper.
The thing is, they don’t appear to be in any kind of hurry to make these additions happen. Here it is, seven days away from the close of the transfer window, and besides some rumors that came and went about maybe getting Bayern’s Holger Badstuber on loan, City haven’t been mentioned as suitors for much of anyone in the positions they need. It is true the January window is notoriously difficult to navigate, since most good players play on good teams that don’t want to interrupt their good seasons by getting rid of their best assets in the middle of the year. But this is still Manchester City, a club with more money than God. You’d imagine that they could’ve used their considerable resources to find a few available players who could help them and pay what it takes to bring them in.
The question then is to ask what City are waiting for. Presumably, the club’s leadership thinks the team as currently constituted is enough to at least earn a Champions League spot, which would be the bare minimum for this bunch. They very well might be proven right, and the way they played against Tottenham probably assuaged any fears of a full-on collapse. City also probably think of this as a true long-term project. Guardiola, after all, has just gotten into town for what should be a three-to-four year stay; better to roll with the roster they have today and invest more next summer, when a larger crop of better players will be available for the taking, than to panic-buy whomever they can get in the winter and wind up wasting money on players who don’t quite fit or aren’t quite good enough. Financial Fair Play also must have some sort of effect. Maybe they’re already paying too much in bloated contracts for the aging players currently dragging the team down to bring in any new blood without first getting out from under those old deals first.
Whatever the reasons why City don’t look likely to spend, because of the recruitment policies of this year and years past—when the team signed players like Eliaquim Mangala and Fernando and Otamendi and Wilfried Bony and Jesús Navas, sometimes for huge money, all while ostensibly planning for Guardiola to take over with these decidedly non-Guardiola-type players—City’s history doesn’t engender much confidence that those in charge actually know what they’re doing. For these reasons, a high-profile loss to Tottenham might’ve been just what they needed to make the urgency of the situation clear to them. Maybe had City lost, the ensuing flood of criticism and doubts about the team’s ability would’ve forced their hand and made them buy, say, Virgil van Dijk and Steven N’Zonzi and José Gayá, players that could’ve immediately injected City with a jolt of talent and promise in the short- and long-term.
Instead, City played very well but nonetheless drew against Tottenham. They’ll probably play out the rest of the season along the trajectory they’ve currently rode so far this year, at times awing spectators with their attacking brilliance and tactical sophistication, other times confounding fans with their defensive frailties and lopsided lineups. No one would be surprised to see this City team end the season in second place—though it also wouldn’t be too much of a shock to see them finish fifth, either.
Whether or not City spend big in January, the team as it exists today is not as good as it could or should be. Sooner or later, if City want to be one of the very best teams in all of Europe, they’ll need to fix these problems that thus far have gone either ignored or, worse, unnoticed.