Ten seasons ago, Manchester City had a problem at home. They were managed by Stuart Pearce, they’d spent something in the region of £2.6 million that summer and they played what is widely considered one of the most boring campaigns that the fans had ever seen. They couldn’t win at the then-City of Manchester Stadium.
Already Pep Guardiola’s side has managed to score more Premier League goals on their own patch than City did in during the entire 2006-07 season—although the Catalan’s budget has been somewhat more substantial than Pearce’s was, and his managerial credentials are far more impressive too.
A decade on, though, City are facing similar sorts of problems as they did under Pearce but on a much grander scale. They’ve been magnified in the context of what’s happened since, but ultimately it boils down to this: At home, City are wasting too many chances and conceding too many goals.
It’s like 2006-07 again, only with much better football before the chance is missed.
On Saturday, Middlesbrough stole a 1-1 draw. It was only the third time since that final season under Pearce that City failed to beat one of the newly promoted teams at the Etihad Stadium. Both other occasions came when Burnley managed a draw—City are now unbeaten in 28 against the top-flight newbies, winning 25.
The last side to take maximum points from Eastlands in their first campaign after going up was Reading, as Leroy Lita netted twice in the closing stages in a match that finished 2-0 to the Royals in February 2007.
Middlesbrough should have been victory 26 out of 28, though. That they weren’t is because of a couple of key factors, and they’re problems that are starting to become too regular at the Etihad under Guardiola.
Many speculated that Tottenham Hotspur’s high-pressing game in their 2-0 victory over City at White Hart Lane earlier this season was the way to beat Guardiola’s side and that closing down a shabby defence would be the way to get points when up against the early title favourites.
For some, such as Spurs and Celtic, it’s worked. For others, most notably Barcelona, it hasn’t—and it’s left City with huge gaps to exploit. Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling had a field day in the 3-1 victory over the Catalan giants in the Champions League on Tuesday, purely because of the space they were left with.
Middlesbrough parked the proverbial bus in that space, and it left City trying to break through a wall of red shirts time and again. When one of their creative players did find a bit of space, they either had two men closing them down or found that every one of their team-mates was being tightly marked.
To call it frustrating would be an understatement, and the crowd were certainly feeling that as nobody seemed to be able to find room for the shot. "Just have a go!" is a regular cry, but there’s little point in blasting the ball toward the target if it’s got to get through nine players before even reaching the goalkeeper. It’s probably not going to go in and is more likely to be a waste than helpful.
But therein lies the problem. Middlesbrough were so deep in the first half that City players were barely challenged in getting the ball to their opponent’s box. However, once Guardiola’s men got it there, they found the defenders or Victor Valdes between the sticks virtually impossible to beat.
Never had a goal been coming more than Aguero’s was in the 43rd minute. Never had a goal that had been coming left the supporters feeling like it had been so laboured.
That strike should have sparked a change in the pattern of play for the home side. In the previous two home draws, both 1-1 with Everton and Southampton, Guardiola’s team had fallen behind. It had left the visitors with something to cling to and meant their defender became even more desperate and stubborn. City eventually equalised in both, but finding a winner proved to be too difficult.
On Saturday, City led for more than half the game and should have seen out the victory. It’s not like the chances weren’t there.
Jesus Navas hit the post. Aguero missed a sitter when free in the box. De Bruyne skied his effort on an empty net when Valdes went wandering. All of these chances came at 1-0, and the fans should have been celebrating City doubling their advantage after at least one of them.
It was with a sense of damning inevitability that Marten de Roon equalised in the 92nd minute—two minutes before the end of stoppage time—with Middlesbrough’s fifth shot of the match, third on target.
City had managed seven efforts on target by that point and 25 in total. They’d dominated the ball, taking 71 per cent possession. But they didn’t win.
Three teams have been successful in leaving no space for City to attack at the Etihad, and City have had no answer to it, wasting chance after chance and leaving themselves open to defensive errors at the back.
A series of such errors allowed Romelu Lukaku to score for Everton. A misplaced pass did the same for Southampton’s Nathan Redmond. Then, on Saturday, a poor initial clearance and slack marking left the home fans scratching their heads for a third time running.
Perhaps Claudio Bravo could have done better to save De Roon’s header. Perhaps Gael Clichy could have put in a better challenge. Perhaps Pablo Zabaleta could have closed down the cross. Perhaps Aleix Garcia could have found touch with his original ball away in the previous attack.
Or instead of leaving themselves open to that sucker punch, perhaps City could have finished off one or two more of their many gilt-edged chances throughout the match.
It’s understandable that frustration bellows from the stands during times like this. With City being wasteful in front of goal, supporters become annoyed because it feels like it takes the creative players so long to get another opportunity. If each effort from inside the box needs 10 minutes of buildup to get through a well-marshalled opponent, of course there will be groans when Aguero fires wide from eight yards—he and City are much better than that.
Opponents raise their game for visits to the Etihad, and it’s equally frustrating to see the likes of Maarten Stekelenburg put in the performance of his career in goal for Everton, then make two howlers three weeks later when at Stamford Bridge. It’d be easier to swallow if Chelsea weren’t a title rival.
You can expect Valdes, after several great saves on Saturday, to drop it into his own net when Chelsea travel to the Riverside Stadium later in November. But as Guardiola said after the match, reported by Gerard Brand of Sky Sports: "That’s football."
Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini’s title-winning City teams didn’t struggle to break down sides that were parking the bus. However, their teams that didn’t top the table in May had that same problem. Therefore, it’s something for Guardiola to sort out—and quickly if he wants to stay in the race.
Critics will argue it’s not a good style to watch when 11 men sit behind the ball and stop City from getting through. Middlesbrough, and others, will argue the point they earned could prove crucial at the end of the season.
It’s City’s failing for allowing the park-the-bus method to work.