Is there something wrong with Manchester City’s attack? It is a question that has barely ever been asked during Pep Guardiola’s four years in charge but after an indifferent start to the season – with just eight goals and eight points from their opening five league games – it is suddenly a relevant one.
Whether you look at goals, shots, expected goals or chances created, every key measure of City’s attacking production is lower than it was at the same stage last season. In fact, they are lower than at the same stage of any season under Guardiola, lower even than in his transitional first year.
Of course, the absences of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus are a significant contributing factor, as Guardiola was at pains to point out on Saturday after another lacklustre performance in east London.
“We created enough chances but we have two strikers injured and Raheem [Sterling] is playing in a position where he is fighting a lot,” he said, having seen Aguero’s return from knee surgery last just two-and-a-half games.
And with City’s all-time leading goalscorer now sidelined for up to a month by a hamstring injury, Sterling looks set to return to a makeshift centre-forward role.
“He’s doing it every game in a position that is not his, as a striker, but we have no alternative,” Guardiola said. “We are trying to adapt to what we have and even with that, we created chances.
“We scored three goals against Porto and created chances… but it’s happened because of everything, because of the lack of preparation again, because there is not much time to recover,” he added. “Sometimes the players arrive in the position and they are tired. I understand that completely.”
There are other mitigating factors. On top of Aguero and Jesus’ lay-offs, Kevin De Bruyne has only played 23 minutes since the end of the international break. The one time that De Bruyne was on the pitch with a recognised centre-forward this season, City beat Wolverhampton Wanderers handily.
Their schedule has not been the kindest, with three of their five league games coming away from home at Molineux, at Elland Road against an in-form Leeds and at the London Stadium against a much-improved West Ham. Leicester City and Arsenal are not the most obliging of guests to welcome to the Etihad, either.
And yet, this feels different – as though it has the potential to become a worrying trend.
For one, City have had to deal with plenty of injuries to Aguero and Jesus over the last few years and were once able to cope, whether it meant switching one in for another or adapting their system when both are unavailable. De Bruyne also missed the vast majority of the 2018-19 campaign but that did not prevent Guardiola from delivering back-to-back league titles. Rarely have injuries dampened City's attacking verve.
Secondly, Sterling is actually coping admirably well in an unfamiliar position. Despite valid questions remaining over his finishing, his record of four goals and more than four shots a game when starting up front this season is matching Aguero and Jesus’ usual output in the role. It seems the problem may lie elsewhere.
The likes of Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden have so far struggled to create as many shots and opportunities per game as they did last season. Kyle Walker has started the campaign well but could contribute more going forward. The loss of David Silva – and failure to replace him, with Foden often playing out wide – has resulted in a number of mediocre attacking displays.
Even against Porto – cited by Guardiola as a good attacking performance – City had only managed four shots on Agustin Marchesin’s goal by the hour mark, including Aguero’s first-half penalty. A contentiously awarded but expertly taken free-kick by Ilkay Gundogan eventually swung things their way to set up a 3-1 victory, but even Gundogan himself admitted after the final whistle that he and his team-mates are “struggling” at the moment.
City return to Champions League action at the Stade Velodrome on Tuesday night against Olympique Marseille and will be looking to produce a more convincing all-round performance. Perhaps it is simply a matter of getting De Bruyne back and in form alongside an established striker, as well as running into a kinder set of fixtures. But Guardiola’s side currently look a little off that swaggering, dominant City of old and have done for some time.
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