By the time you read this Manchester City will have taken on high-flying Spurs in a season-defining clash and I would not be remotely surprised if the performance turned out to be spirited regardless of the result. In recent years City have made a habit of reacting positively whenever their reputation is on the line and with just two exceptions – Pellegrini’s lacklustre final season and now in an era expected to be transformative and revolutionary under Guardiola – their baring of teeth to widespread criticism has usually been enough to quieten an unfortunate truth.
That unfortunate truth is this: At the heart of this City side – and those that have recently preceded it – is the absence of one. There has been scant evidence of fight unless goaded and even less desire to step out of the ring and discard the gloves. Such brutishness is clearly considered to be beneath them which is why any away trip to a typically ferocious environment is met with a heavy sense of foreboding by Blues. Rarely are we disappointed to be disappointed as the same eleven individuals who delight in flat-track bullying four or five past inferior opposition at home – indeed they positively twinkle with brilliance – now flail into a hapless, cowering mess under the first sign of intense scrutiny. The pattern is long-standing and undeniable and considering the wealth of talent at disposal can only reasonably be put down to character defects.
Every incarnation of Manchester City since Sergio Aguero’s unforgettable late strike that shook up the world – and I include the title-winners of 2013/14 who broke the hundred goal barrier – have been a cocky, entitled child scared of its own shadow. I only wish Claudio Bravo had actually jumped with fright last week at Goodison Park. He might then have inadvertently saved one.
Yet the lack of gnarly self-belief and fierce pride is only part of the problem and stems directly from a far greater concern than that of City’s flawed mentality. No matter who patrols the technical area – from Mancini to Pellegrini to Guardiola – and regardless of who has worn the shirts it has been a collective cocktail of fragile arrogance, complacency and insecurity that has too often undermined a post-takeover era that could, and should, have ushered in seasons of dominance.
This, strangely, can best be explained by their two championship winning campaigns. City were exceptional in both with sustained periods of exhibition fare that resulted in six-goal maulings of United, Arsenal and Spurs and at times football not originating from this planet. Yet each occasion required an against-the-odds late comeback when truthfully the trophy should have been sewn up by April. Complacency set in with an arrogance built on shifting sands. Then came crippling doubt when things went awry.
Flat-track bullying and being inspired into righting wrongs: These are the situations in which this, or any City side from the past seven or so years, thrive. Anything in between and they rely on individual excellence to get them through or else succumb to a mind-set that, bluntly speaking, is pitiful.
I am loathe to use Sir Alex Ferguson’s United as a comparison here but when it’s necessary to highlight a relentlessly driven winning machine with a huge slice of bastard about them then who better? When they conceded first their response was always immediate fury. “How dare you score against us. We’re going to make you suffer for that”. By contrast the last time City overcame a half-time deficit away from home was 94 games ago. That would be a staggering statistic for any side; for one that has showcased Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero it borders on distasteful and points only towards a weak heart and mind once talent and bravado is stripped away.
Which brings us to the here and now of Tottenham and, as previously stated, it is entirely conceivable that City respond to their critics in the same decisive manner they have in times past. Just don’t expect that to carry over into the weeks ahead. The point would have been proven and the truth of City’s brittle mentality once again swept under the carpet. Job done.
I have recently read a thousand think-pieces detailing Guardiola’s failings and pontificating on what needs to be done to reverse an inaugural season in danger of sliding into mediocrity. Most mention Bravo. Others namecheck the aging full-backs. A few look beyond a disjointed defence to a disjointed team. Not once however have I seen it said that the Spanish grandmaster’s biggest challenge lies in changing his side’s thinking; to make them believe without any shards of doubt in what they’re capable of while crucially having them acknowledge and embrace the fortitude required to get there.
The belief is down to Pep. The want is down to the players. I won’t be holding my breath.