Manchester City have made their worst start to a Premier League season since Mark Hughes was sacked 12 years ago, leaving Pep Guardiola’s side languishing precariously in 13th.
In contrast, Real Sociedad (the new home of former City captain David Silva) are a surprise table-topper in La Liga, with the Basque club leading the charge in Spain, and some 12 points ahead of Barcelona. Granted, Ronald Koeman’s charges have two games in hand, but it is a surprising gulf nonetheless.
Part of the Whites and Blues’ early dominance can be attributed to the exploits of star forward Mikel Oyarzabal, as well as a near impenetrable rearguard established by head coach Imanol Alguacil, whose side have shipped just four goals (only Atletico Madrid have conceded fewer).
But, perhaps more significantly, the shift in power during these embryonic stages of the season fall at the feet of one man above all else: David Silva. The playmaker grandmaster called time on his Man City career in the summer and subsequently relocated to the Reale Arena, where his move has caused ripples on both sides of the divide.
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City have since lost the panache and edge of their 2018/19 title-winning side, while Real Sociedad are tearing up the script in La Liga and look good value for their early lead. At 34, many felt Silva would leave a noticeable but not catastrophic hole in the heart of City’s midfield. That foresight has since proven ill-judged.
Much like Santi Cazorla when he left Arsenal for Villarreal in 2018 after a few injury-ravaged seasons in north London, only to explode back onto the scene, Silva too has left the Premier League in his twilight years but is by no means on the wane. And his absence seems to have already left an indelible scar at the Etihad.
City are sleepwalking to mediocrity and look devoid of conviction in the final third. There is a goalscoring crisis taking shape under Guardiola’s tutelage, with just five goals scored in the last six games. To put this all in context, his side have been outscored by the likes of West Ham, Brighton and even Crystal Palace.
And if we put this concerning output under the microscope further, City’s expected goals (xG) per match has dropped from 2.48 in 2019/20 to just 1.35 in 2020/21. They are also creating just 11.63 chances per 90 minutes to last season’s 15.34.
This is uncharted territory for Guardiola. And while, the departures of Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta (the spine of City for much of the 2010s) all left a gaping void at City none, it would seem, have left one to the degree we are seeing this season with the exit of Silva.
Already this campaign the aptly named “Merlin” has remedied the departure of Real Madrid loanee and talismanic force Martin Odegaard at Real Sociedad, brought a winning mentality to the Bay of Biscay coast, and is the club’s top assist provider, teeing up his teammates twice.
Described by Guardiola as the best ‘space finder’ he has ever seen, it’s clear the Catalan coach is struggling to comes to terms with the reality of his side post-Silva, a player who regularly transfixed the Etihad terraces and, to use on old cliche, could thread a ball through the eye of a needle. How City could use some of that now.
Following the recent 2-0 loss at the hands of Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham, Guardiola observed that his side are still “quite similar to the previous seasons when we scored more than 100 goals.” But, anyone who has watched City this season will know that that is simply not the case.
Man City will end a Premier League matchweek in the bottom half of the table for the fifth time this season.
Before this season, Pep Guardiola had finished a gameweek in the bottom half of a table only three times in his ENTIRE top-flight managerial career. 😳 pic.twitter.com/qsdUDOsvnt
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 21, 2020
“I don’t think counter-attacks are the big problem,” said Guardiola at his press conference on Tuesday. “I think the fluidity to attack is the target that we and I have to improve to know exactly what we have to do.”
There is no question that, with such a revered tactician at the helm and a squad bursting at the seams with world class talent, City can return to their former state in the blink of an eye.
But for now, Guardiola remains scratching his head and is left in the unenviable position of trying to fashion a fluid system without his once midfield genius, Silva.