Manchester City are vulnerable in ways they haven’t been for years | Jonathan Wilson

IIn some ways it was a freak. Manchester City won the xG 2.6-0.5. The goal that made it 3-3 was only the second goal that Tottenham player Dejan Kulusevski has ever scored with his head (actually his shoulder) in his professional career. City hit the woodwork twice. They might have grabbed a very late winner had referee Simon Hooper not blown the whistle for a foul on Erling Haaland as Jack Grealish scored – a non-advantage about which Pep Guardiola was commendably restrained in his post-match comments. The score was 3-3, but it was a game that City had dominated; There really shouldn't be anything for the champions to worry about.

And yet this continues to happen. City have drawn their last three Premier League games. The three equalizers they got came after 95 minutes, after 80 minutes and after 90 minutes. Last Wednesday they defeated RB Leipzig 3-2, but only after being 2-0 down. So much for those who dismiss City's obvious brilliance as risk-free and bloodless.

Guardiola himself seemed relatively unconcerned. City had not been right defensively against Chelsea, he acknowledged, but his attitude seemed to be that it was just one of those things. His record against Spurs (in various iterations) is inexplicably poor: just two wins in the last nine league games. They are just three points away from the top. John Stones has been back on the bench as he recovers from a muscle problem, but is expected to be fit again soon, allowing Guardiola to restore him to that deep-lying midfield role that has proven so difficult to fill in his absence.

But Rodri will miss Wednesday's trip to Aston Villa after picking up a fifth yellow card of the season on Sunday. City have lost the last four games they have missed and Villa, who are just one point behind City, have won six of six games at Villa Park in the league this season and have scored more home goals than any side in the top five leagues of Europe, except Bayern Munich. The assumption remains that City will click in the spring, when Guardiola's training schedule has them at their peak; The question is how big of a handicap they will be fighting for by then and that match against Villa looks like it could give Arsenal (away at Luton) and Liverpool (away at Sheffield United) the chance to extend their lead.

And City have conceded nine goals in their last four Premier League games, their worst run since 2016. This season as a whole, they have let in 16 goals in 14 games, or 1.14 per game, compared to 0.87 in all of last season. , 0.68 the season before and 0.84 in 2020-2021. City have become a team to be pitted against, a problem they haven't really overcome consistently in the Premier League since Guardiola's first season in charge.

There are obvious explanations: a drop in intensity after winning the treble was almost inevitable, especially given how long and fraught their pursuit of the Champions League had been; they are now more direct with Haaland, making it harder to defend against counters; Jérémy Doku, as brilliant as he dribbles, gives the ball away more than is usual for Guardiola, exposing him in transitions; Rúben Dias has suffered a dramatic loss of form.

But perhaps most interesting is the apparent reliance on Stones, who has been limited to just 257 minutes of competition in four games this season. Guardiola's football, which is so based on his philosophy and which gives so much priority to the team, should in theory reduce the focus on individuals, but Stones has emerged as essential because he is seemingly the only player in the squad who is capable of executing the hybrid central defence/tenacity. role in midfield. Manuel Akanji has struggled with that role and it was remarkable on Sunday how Guardiola, faced with three attackers staying high, eventually pushed Akanji back into the defensive line.

That fits with one of the basic tenets of the Cruyffian theory underlying Guardiola's thinking, that a team should always have one more defender than the opponent has attackers, but by drawing Akanji deeper, Guardiola ultimately made it easier for Spurs to play through midfield. . That's where Julián Álvarez presents a dilemma. His quality is unquestionable and he has provided four goals and five assists this season, but his and Haaland's efforts are weakening the midfield. That's why there was a need for a defender in the first place.

What's fascinating is that this is the kind of positional and balance game that Guardiola usually excels at. He will almost certainly find a solution sooner or later – and the impending return of Stones and then, probably in late January, Kevin De Bruyne, will help. But for now, City's move to a more direct style appears to have left them vulnerable in a way they haven't been for years.

On this day

Juventus striker Alessandro del Piero announced himself as a star on this day in 1994.
Juventus striker Alessandro del Piero announced himself as a star in 1994. Photo: Massimo Pinca/AP

Some goals are special because of the power of the attack, some because of the agility of the football, some because of the complexity of the move that precedes them, and some because they are unlike anything you have seen before or since. Everyone knew Alessandro Del Piero was a great candidate. Juventus had signed him from Padua the summer before and he had scored a hat-trick against Parma on his full debut. But it was his goal against Fiorentina on December 4, 1994 that marked him as truly special.

Partly it was the context. Fiorentina led 2–0 in the first half, but goals in the 74th and 79th minutes from Gianluca Vialli leveled the scores. Then, with six minutes to go, left back Alessandro Orlando launched a long ball into the penalty area from just inside the Fiorentina half. As Del Piero ran on, it would have been natural to bring the ball down and perhaps try to win a corner or penalty from one of the two Fiorentina defenders chasing him. Instead of, he hit a powerful fired volley with the outside of his right foot flashing past Francesco Toldo, his status as a genius was confirmed.

This is an excerpt from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, the Guardian US's weekly look at the game in Europe and beyond. Subscribe for free here. Do you have a question for Jonathan? Email and he will provide the best answer in a future edition