Pep Guardiola is insistent that Manchester City’s recent deterioration won’t make him abandon his philosophy, but there is no denying that things are not going to plan at the Etihad Stadium.
Guardiola’s perfect start of 10 wins from 10 games is a distant memory, with City managing just four victories from 15 fixtures since.
Defence has been their biggest concern, with only one clean sheet in 17 matches and both Chelsea and Leicester scoring at least three goals against them in their two most recent games.
Earlier in the season Guardiola’s system, which emphasises building play from the back, seemed to be working, with John Stones instrumental.
Now teams appear to have cottoned on to the tactic and are finding that when they apply pressure high up the pitch, City’s defence ends up all over the place.
As a result they have slipped to fourth in the Premier League, seven points behind leaders Chelsea.
Part of the problem is that City don’t have the right players to play the system that Guardiola favours.
They are particularly lacking in pace alongside Stones in defence. Nicolas Otamendi is just not mobile enough and, as much as I like Aleksandar Kolarov, he does not have the speed either.
Guardiola’s decision to ditch Joe Hart for a new goalkeeper, meanwhile, has been a dismal failure.
We can only speculate whether Hart would have saved some of the efforts Claudio Bravo fielded against Chelsea and Leicester but the new man’s shot-stopping and angles – basic stuff – have been questionable.
De Bruyne and Silva struggling
Sometimes defenders just need to clear the ball, yet City are persisting with playing out no matter the situation and it is encouraging opposing teams to get on top of them.
I can’t recall Bayern Munich, Guardiola’s old team, playing out to this extent; it’s almost as if City have become an exaggeration of Pep’s preferred approach.
City’s struggles are also having a knock-on effect further up the pitch: Kevin de Bruyne looks to have lost confidence and we aren’t seeing much of David Silva either.
It was also evident in the way City players lost their cool at the end of the Chelsea defeat. It smelled of fragility.
This is creating a bit of vicious circle, and it has all been self-inflicted, be it in selecting tactics, transfer dealings or disciplinary problems.
How can Guardiola fix it?
Ideally Guardiola would use next month’s transfer window to bring in players more suited to his style, but it is hard to trade in January, especially when it means moving on City’s high-paid stars.
I think he’d bring Hart back from his loan at Torino if it was not so embarrassing. He won’t want to be seen to be making big decisions and not sticking to them.
If he is determined to stick rigidly with these tactics then he could try to ride out this dip in form by working harder on the training pitch, with a view to rebuilding in the summer.
But if City are going to revive their pursuit of Chelsea this season then he has to analyse why they’re losing the ball and change his strategy to better suit the players at his disposal, so that they are more selective about when they play out.