One win in four Premier League games, another injury for Sergio Aguero and key players still missing - is this Pep Guardiola’s biggest test in his four years at Manchester City?
Despite Phil Foden’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw at West Ham on Saturday, City have dropped seven points from the first five games and are anchored in the bottom half of the table.
They welcomed back Kevin de Bruyne from injury at London Stadium but Aguero, who had surgery on a knee injury in June, did not appear for the start of the second half, because of a leg muscle injury.
It has been a less than smooth start for Guardiola - who guided City to the Premier League title in 2018 and 2019 - so what now?
‘They just can’t get going’
It was the fifth game of last season when City came unstuck at promoted Norwich City.
By then, they already had 10 points, two more than they have managed so far this season.
“City only had a very small close-season break, lots of injuries at the start of the new season and they really haven’t found any kind of rhythm,” said former Arsenal defender Martin Keown, a three-time Premier League title winner, on Football Focus.
“It’s really surprising. They just can’t get going.”
While Keown and many others may be surprised at City’s slow start, Guardiola is not - and has no problem identifying the reasons.
“Many injuries, a lack of preparation, no recovery time, and tough games we’ve played so far,” he said when asked after the West Ham match why City have made a less than spectacular start.
“I’m not a guy who can predict the future. We’ve already dropped seven points, which is a lot.
“But we’ve struggled a lot for many reasons. We have to take things game by game and see what happens.”
Since winning at Wolves in their opening game, Guardiola’s side have lost heavily at home to Leicester, drawn at Leeds, beaten Arsenal and dropped another two points at West Ham.
“That whole air of invincibility seems to have dripped away,” said former England keeper Rob Green on BBC Radio 5 Live.
“Getting turned over by Leicester, Leeds could have finished 6-6, they have not hit the straps compared to seasons past.”
Aguero adds to City’s injury misery
Injuries and have taken their toll on City, so much so that Guardiola named an unchanged starting line-up for the first time since October 2017, some 172 games ago.
While substitute De Bruyne looked sharp during the 22 minutes he was on the pitch, Guardiola looked deflated when he announced afterwards forward Aguero had suffered another injury.
Having only returned from a lengthy spell on the sidelines against Arsenal last week, his latest setback is something City could do without as Gabriel Jesus, Fernandinho, Benjamin Mendy, Nathan Ake and Aymeric Laporte remain out.
“They’ve had so many injuries,” added Keown.
“Since they went out of the Champions League quarter-finals [against Lyon], they’ve struggled.
“It’s going to be very important for Sergio Aguero to stay fit. Pep Guardiola wants to play expansive football but this is not the same silky City we’ve seen in the past where they were breaking records left right and centre.”
Aguero’s fitness and form is surely key to City success, especially in the absence of Jesus, their only other senior striker.
Yet the 32-year-old Argentine, who has recently celebrated his ninth anniversary at City, is facing another spell on the sidelines.
His replacement against West Ham was Foden.
“It’s been a strange year,” said the 20-year-old. “A lot of games are coming quickly so maybe some players are feeling it. Everyone has the ability to make an impact.”
Guardiola said Aguero will be assessed on Sunday before the Champions League trip to Marseille on Tuesday.
‘We will see how good Pep really is’
Since they last won the Premier League, City have lost Vincent Kompany, Leroy Sane and David Silva.
Green said Guardiola is having to rebuild a team for the first time.
He spent four seasons at Barcelona, winning three La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues before moving to Bayern Munich, where he won the Bundesliga in each of his three seasons.
Now in his fifth season at City, Guardiola faces many challenges, added Green.
“He hasn’t had to rebuild before,” he said.
“Maybe they have dropped the ball in terms of recruitment but also maybe Pep didn’t expect to be here this time last season. You could say they could have started building last season, but Pep doesn’t normally do more than three years.”
Former Tottenham midfielder Andy Reid said City lacked leadership on the pitch.
“Will they have that consistency? And when it comes to the tough games, will they have that bit extra? I’m not too sure,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“That is why it’s a rebuilding process.”
Keown added: “They’re not far from greatness, but there’s certainly some work to be done.
“We will see how good Pep really is now; he’s got to rebuild the team.”