Handball or no handball, penalty or no penalty, one thing is clear and obvious; Manchester City have been a shadow of their former selves this season.
And Pep Guardiola is the one to blame.
This is not to dismiss all of the truly brilliant work the Catalan has done at the Etihad Stadium… but he has well and truly lost it this season. After their lacklustre defeat at Liverpool on Sunday, the 2019/20 Premier League title is nothing more than a pipe dream for the Citizens now, with the Reds holding a nine-point lead over the reigning champs.
City will not catch the Reds. Any hopes they had of topping the table come May were extinguished at Anfield amid a blaze of slick counter-attacking and ruthless efficiency that laid bare the champions’ weaknesses.
The errors, tactical and individual, made in that clash were just the latest in a long line of damaging mistakes from Guardiola.
The 3-1 loss at the hands of Jürgen Klopp’s swash-buckling, super-pressers highlighted the faults in Pep’s strategy and character that have seemingly already ended the club’s title challenge in November. Heading these flaws are the coach’s stubbornness and arrogance.
Using a 4-3-3 formation has brought ridiculous levels of success at Eastlands, yet that doesn’t mean the system should be used in every single match, regardless of who the Citizens’ opponents are.
There is no doubt Guardiola watched Sheffield United’s clash with Liverpool in September. He would have analysed what went on and witnessed the Blades taking advantage of the spaces left by Klopp’s attacking full-backs.
Yes, United were beaten 1-0 in that encounter, but it was a fortuitous victory for the Merseysiders, with goalkeeper Dean Henderson’s howler allowing them to take the points at Brammall Lane.
If Guardiola was more flexible in his thinking, he would have had the humility to concede that the usual formation was not suited to an away meeting with an in-form Liverpool. 3-5-2 might have been the shrewder option.
It would probably have meant picking the unreliable Nicolás Otamendi in central-defence alongside John Stones and Fernandinho, or fielding 18-year-old Eric García. Of course, Pep was never going to give the teenager a chance, but more on that later.
It’s no surprise that City’s downfall was orchestrated by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson – both men were sensational down the flanks for the Premier League leaders and European champions.
Stopping their immaculate deliveries from out wide is admittedly a daunting task. That doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the duo’s attacking tendencies and expose the gaps they leave behind, which a 3-5-2 might have done.
Moreover, such a setup would have provided more protection for Claudio Bravo, who needs all he can get. And yet, Guardiola decided to stick with his guns and the team misfired as a result.
It wasn’t just the formation that called attention to Pep’s mounting errors. To make no substitutions until the final quarter of the match was baffling. There is no way to justify it, with the Sky Blues looking desperately flat for the vast majority of the game.
That Guardiola took off Sergio Agüero – his greatest goal threat – when he at last made an alteration was even more frustrating for City supporters. The manager was either throwing in the towel or making a comeback all the less likely to occur.
Unfortunately, the loss at Liverpool was not an isolated incident.
On numerous occasions this term, Guardiola has put his naivety and foolishness on full show. He has a beautiful mind and sees football in a truly unique way, but he needs to snap out of this narcissistic love of his own work.
During a miniature defensive crisis in the early months of the season, the former Barcelona boss refused to accept it was time to blood the youngsters.
Rather than replace the injured pair of Stones and Aymeric Laporte with one of the academy’s brightest talents in the form of García, Guardiola thought it wise to use Fernandinho and Otamendi in the heart of his backline.
The Spanish centre-back may be youthful, yet he has the mindset of someone twice his age. When captaining the elite development squad, he has been a figure of authority, offering a calm and assured presence.
Why does Pep not pick García over Otamendi, who continually proves he is not up to the requisite standard? Probably the same reasons he doesn’t give Phil Foden the game-time he deserves, despite lavishing praise on the playmaker.
His reluctance to give the youth a chance cost City the services of Jadon Sancho in 2017 and is just another example of Pep’s lack of flexibility.
He may have added five major trophies to the club’s trophy cabinet during his tenure and broken many records along the way, but there are still many things Guardiola must reflect on and many things he must change about his attitude.
He must accept he is not perfect.
He must accept that, sometimes, other people know better.
He must accept that he is the reason the most expensive squad in footballing history are putting up such a feeble title challenge.
For more from Ed Alexander, follow him on Twitter!