Although they are top of the league, Manchester City aren’t at their best right now.
The weekend’s 1-1 draw at Everton was the Citizens’ third game without a win and they have squandered the four-point lead they held at the end of September.
It will also be almost a month without a win in all competitions should Guardiola fail to beat his old club Barcelona on Wednesday night.
While that would have been unthinkable at Barcelona or Bayern Munich, the Spaniard has escaped a lot of criticism in the press.
Any Premier League side would be envious of City’s current position, but you can help but feel that more was expected from a man who has an almost mythical aura after winning 21 trophies – including two Champions Leagues.
It looked like that magic touch was rubbing off at the Etihad as well as City strolled to six wins in their first six games – including victory in the Manchester derby – while they also convincingly beat a Monchengladbach side they were tipped to struggle against 4-0.
Since then things haven’t gone so well. The Citizens looked exposed and drew 3-3 against a Celtic side they were expected to beat comfortably, while they were outran and outclass by Tottenham Hotspur in a 2-0 loss at White Hart Lane.
They then failed to beat Everton at home, missing two penalties and relying on Nolito to rescue a point after Romelu Lukaku had hit them on the break.
While three games without a win hardly calls for panic stations, you have to wonder how people would react if it was another manager in this position. Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte have already come in for criticism after similar runs while you can’t imagine Manuel Pellegrini would have remained unscathed.
A running theme throughout the season has been City’s inability to shut teams out, regardless of their possession. On the first day Sunderland almost claimed a shock point after Jermain Defoe found the net despite the Black Cats barely mustering a chance.
This has continued throughout the season – regardless of how much time the Citizens spend in the oppositions half they seem vulnerable on the break – and was on show again at the weekend as Romelu Lukaku received the ball 30 yards from the goal and managed to outpace Gael Clichy and slot home.
City have only managed one clean sheet in the league – at home to Bournemouth – and considering Guardiola has spent a combined £60m adding John Stones and Claudio Bravo to a defence that managed 16 sheets last year, you would expect more.
So why is Guardiola avoiding criticism?
The main word used to describe the Spaniard so far appears to be “innovative”, and it’s easy to see why.
The man who introduced ‘tiki-taka’ football at Barcelona and brought the term ‘False Nine’ into regular football lexicon has been one of the most forward-thinking tactical minds in modern football and was seen as a saviour of the English game after the league was won by an (at times) negative Leicester City side last year.
He had pundits waxing lyrical from the off after instructing his full-backs to play centrally and overload the middle (something he had done at times at Bayern with David Alaba and Rafinha), while City’s players were undoubtedly playing with more zip than they had under Pellegrini.
Similarly, the Spaniard’s charges have been quick to praise the effect his methods have had, with many players, such as Fabian Delph, talking up the Guardiola effect.
It seems City’s lack of defensive solidity is seen as more of a teething problem than a side effect to Guardiola’s tactics, but you have to wonder how they’ll cope against the top European sides Guardiola has been tasked with unseating, especially after being so ruthlessly exposed by Mauricio Pochettino’s tactics a fortnight ago.
Another reason Guardiola may be cut some slack is the fact he is without his best defender and captain.
Vincent Kompany has been sidelined for most of the season and has only played a minute so far, yet is one of the club’s top defenders when fit. Many feel that with the Belgian back in the side the clean sheets will come, while he can also help to nurture the currently naive Stones and turn him into a world-class defender.
The problem there is that Kompany is extremely injury-prone – he hasn’t played a full season since 2010-11 and managed only 14 games last campaign. Arguably, if that was a valid excuse then Pellegrini would still be in a job and one of Guardiola’s jobs should surely be to create a defence that can cope without Kompany.
Ultimately football is a results business and the fact City are top is defence enough for Guardiola.
It will be interesting, though, to see how long this lasts when this is no longer the case.