• Premier League may be seeing a power shift after Norwich shock.
• Guardiola has been questioned for his decision to leave Kevin De Bruyne out
At first, Pep Guardiola went through the familiar routine. After Manchester City lost to Norwich, a promoted team so ridden by injuries that Daniel Farke named two goalkeepers on the bench, the world wanted answers. Guardiola had them.
He insisted he was happy with City’s display, he excused their defensive frailties as simple human errors. Yes, they are five points behind Liverpool. But it is only September. Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson were masters at protecting their players, too, while no one is better at hijacking the message than Jose Mourinho.
Guardiola knows the script by now. But shortly before the end of his press conference on Saturday, the mask suddenly slipped and he even revealed he was aware of the ‘Fraudiola’ insult.
“I’m sorry. If you think that today I have doubts in my team, I can’t,” he said. “If you think now I am going to believe we are “pfft” (nothing), because they lose a game. They gave me all the prestige that I have in England when the first season everyone was saying ‘Fraudiola’ and my kind of game here in England is not possible to play because here we need tackles.”
“These players gave me all the prestige I have and all around the world how good a manager I am.”
It’s not unlike Guardiola to be defensive. But at Carrow Road his words and his manner were telling. Why, so long after he proved those doubters so spectacularly wrong, do the questions still sting? Is it because this is the first time in a long time that his players —and his decisions — are being doubted?
His call to leave Kevin De Bruyne on the bench certainly raised eyebrows. “It was just his decision,” said the Belgium star. “There is no point saying ‘I was sitting on the bench and that is why we lost’.”
At the back, though, familiar cracks appeared and there is cause for concern. Liverpool look supreme and their lead is the biggest any side has enjoyed after five matches in Premier League history. City, meanwhile, conceded twice in the first half-hour of a league game for only the second time on Guardiola’s watch.
Kenny McLean’s opener came from a corner, meaning eight of the last nine league goals City have shipped have been at set pieces.
“You can improve when you win and when you lose. When we won, everyone said it was the perfect team,” said Guardiola. “You asked if we can improve and we said yes. The people said no. We say yes. Many times.”
“Of course, we can do better —will it be enough in our level to achieve our target to fight for the title for the season? Honestly, now, I don’t know. I didn’t know last year and two seasons ago in October, November, December and January.”
City’s task is not helped by comical individual errors. Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones were regulars during Guardiola’s trophy-less first season and now they have been reunited. For Norwich’s pivotal third goal, Otamendi was robbed of the ball on the edge of his own area, meaning he and Stones have now made eight errors leading to goals since Guardiola took over. The rest of City’s outfield players have made two between them.
Neither Kyle Walker nor Oleksandr Zinchenko covered themselves in glory, either. But it is at the heart of the defence where the shadow of Aymeric Laporte looms large. His knee injury came at a bad time for City, who face Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday and have only two fit centre backs.
Guardiola lost Vincent Kompany in the summer and transfer target Harry Maguire went to rivals Manchester United instead. Despite Laporte’s injury he has no intention of signing reinforcements.
“We have these players and with them we will finish the season. In a good or bad way,” said Guardiola. “When they don’t care and they lose the game, in that situation it will be a problem. But I know how they suffer when they don’t win. What do you have to do? Work harder.”
The job is not done for Norwich, either. Farke’s side were magnificent on Saturday. They showed they can mix it with the very best and upcoming games against Burnley, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and Bournemouth represent a chance to build on one of the upsets of the season.
For now, though, their manager remains realistic. “We know where we’re coming from and we are totally humble and with both feet on the ground,” said Farke. “We let the table take care of itself. We’re just interested in performances.”
Many more like this and expectations will change.