Manchester City’s season has meandered of late. Stellar performances against Barcelona and Manchester United have been forgotten, with Pep Guardiola’s record at the club looking more and more ordinary with each passing week. The natural criticisms have arisen, of course. Hapless defeat to Leicester City last weekend was a low point, with their defence exposed by direct running from Jamie Vardy and the guile of Riyad Mahrez. The following victory over Watford eased the pain of that defeat somewhat, but the match against Arsenal this weekend matters more than any other.
Forced to continue without Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero after their reckless red cards against Chelsea, Guardiola has had to shuffle his pack. Ilkay Gundogan is also ruled out with a long-term injury now and it’s hard to know quite how Guardiola must feel about those suspensions. Especially should they cost Manchester City crucial points over a crucial period in the title race. Aguero would have made little difference in the defensive collapse against Leicester, but Fernandinho’s positional sense may have prevented a couple of the goals and given a passing option to enable City to play through Leicester’s press.
Such was the needlessness of the red cards, Guardiola must have questioned the sanity of his players. Frustration can cause idiocy on the field, but Manchester City’s manager will have little sympathy if their suspensions cost the side against Arsenal. Aguero’s clinical finishing could have made all the difference in a tight game, while Fernandinho’s presence in midfield will be missed still further with the absence of Gundogan. A Yaya Toure and Fernando midfield pairing has never instilled confidence, even if Mesut Ozil struggles as he did in midweek.
Victory over Watford was a welcome relief for City having lost consecutive league games. Failure to win would have been a disaster, mind, and the beginning of a storm of circling ‘proper football men’ saying Guardiola must be sacked because he’s not in one of those silly foreign leagues, now. You know who I mean.
This Arsenal game, though, is a massive game for Guardiola. A massive game that has been made harder by the stupidity of his own players. Fernandinho has been the lungs of this Manchester City side. Retaining possession, breaking up play and driving forward into space with the ball: he brings a skill set that no other first team player can provide. Aguero, meanwhile, has attracted his second suspension of the season and left a young, albeit talented, Kelechi Iheanacho to lead the line. Sitting seven points behind Chelsea already, Guardiola’s side could be 10 points off the pace by Christmas and, should that be the case, it would be hard not to point the finger towards the two suspended stars.
The enormity of this fixture cannot be underestimated. Aguero and Fernandinho were obviously not thinking about the matches they missed in the heat of a frustrating defeat to Chelsea, but that should not excuse their actions. Manchester City’s squad depth is impressive in parts, but losing their two most important players at the same time is a disaster. If they can come out of their game with Arsenal without defeat, it should be seen as a success given the circumstances.
However big a squad, however much quality you sign, it is impossible to compensate for losing a pair of players so fundamental to how the side plays. Form has not always been perfect with them in the side, but their actions have put their team at risk. Defeat to Arsenal would make the title a distant dream and the pair would have to shoulder much of the blame.
Guardiola’s tactics will be a fascinating as ever on Sunday. Yet, even a genius is limited by the tools at his disposal. His hand will be forced to an extent, the absence of Fernandinho and Aguero will linger should City underperform.