To an extent, defeat to Paris Saint-Germain doesn’t matter for Manchester City. It’s only the group stage of the Champions League. Come March, Tuesday's 2–0 defeat to PSG at the Parc des Princes will be a game that will be remembered, if it is remembered at all, for Lionel Messi’s first goal as a PSG player. City will, almost certainly, go through to the knockout rounds and, thanks to country protection, it cannot play a Premier League club in the last 16. More generally, there was plenty to admire about its performance. It had 17 shots to PSG’s six. But the fact it converted none of them points to a worrying trend.
Perspectives change very quickly in football. Man City was excellent at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, producing a display of remarkably disciplined pressing to stifle Chelsea to the extent it didn’t muster a shot on target. That rather occluded the fact that its start to the season had been uncertain.
On the one hand, that sounds like a preposterous statement. Before Saturday, City had won five and drawn one of its previous six games in all competitions, scoring 23 goals and conceding just four. But over the season as a whole, City’s games had largely fallen into two clear categories: Those in which City hammered the opposition and scored five or six, and those in which it struggled to break down an opponent.
There were, perhaps, excuses at the beginning of the season. A lot of clubs who had players involved in the latter stages of the Euros got off to slow starts. A pair of 1–0 defeats, to Leicester in the Community Shield and then Tottenham on the opening weekend of the Premier League season, suggested two familiar failings have not been solved, those being the tendency to be caught out on the counterattack, and a general wastefulness in front of goal. In the specific context of this August, of course, that profligacy brought pointed questions about the decision not to do all that was necessary to sign Harry Kane away from Spurs. The 0–0 home draw against Southampton was similar, with City not quite at its best failing to make as many chances as it would expect to, and wasting those it did create.
A 1–0 league win at Leicester was slightly different. Leicester is a side that has regularly upset City on the counter through the pace of Jamie Vardy, and while City was scratchy, it was notably effective at preventing Leicester from breaking. That was something City clearly worked on last season—when it also had a slightly uneasy start to the season—often playing a double pivot and reliably keeping five outfielders behind the ball. Which, of course, made it all the more baffling when Guardiola abandoned that approach in the Champions League final, playing İlkay Gündoğan as his deepest-lying midfielder.
But it was against Chelsea that the capacity to counter the counter was seen to its fullest extent. Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea had won its previous three games against City, largely through its ability on the break, and with Timo Werner alongside Romelu Lukaku it was set up to play that way again, but it never got close to City. Yet amid the justified praise for City’s performance, it was perhaps overlooked that, once again, it probably should have won by a bigger margin. More chances, or near-chances, were wasted.
The issue was apparent again on Tuesday at PSG, where Raheem Sterling was used as the central striker. Sterling has never seemed like a natural center forward. He is a player who, for all his quality, can look indecisive when slightly out of form, and, as well as he played for England at the Euros, he has not been at his best for City for at least six months. Sterling made an oblique reference at the Euros to the “different reasons” why he hadn’t been at his best for City. Quite what those are remains a mystery, but he was voted out of the captaincy group at the beginning of the season.
With Jack Grealish, who is yet to fully settle at City after his £100 million move from Aston Villa, also having a frustrating night, City was oddly toothless despite having control of the midfield. PSG was only intermittently threatening, and the gap between the front three and back seven may on another night have been exploited, but once it had taken an eighth-minute lead, it didn’t really need to do more.
The opener itself was a hugely disappointing goal to concede, a moment of hesitation from Aymeric Laporte that allowed Kylian Mbappé space for a cross that, after a couple of half-touches, was eventually crashed into the top corner by Idrissa Gana Gueye. The second was a brilliant strike from Messi, his first professional goal for anyone other than Barcelona, and almost inevitably, it stemmed initially from a moment in transition.
At least City knows what its flaws are. Addressing them, though, especially before the rematch of big spenders at the Etihad on Matchday 5 at the end of November, is another issue.
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