Guardiola and Man City have cause for concern as Anfield awaits
Manchester City's battling 2-1 win over Southampton meant they stayed in touch with Premier League leaders Liverpool ahead of a blockbusting trip to Anfield next weekend.
The gap at the summit remains six points after Sergio Aguero cancelled out James Ward-Prowse's first-half opener from a rare Ederson error, before Kyle Walker proved to be an unlikely matchwinner.
But Pep Guardiola's champions are undeniably some way short of the supreme form that saw them amass 198 points over the course of back-to-back Premier League titles, having laboured for long periods against a Southampton side that shipped nine goals eight days ago.
A repeat of Wolves' win at the Etihad Stadium last month appeared on the cards until Aguero intervened.
Liverpool retained their advantage at the top thanks to a stoppage-time winner from Sadio Mane at Aston Villa, coming after Andy Robertson set up the 2-1 win with an 87th-minute equaliser.
It means that if City's visit to Merseyside is not quite "must-win" it is almost certainly "must-not-lose". Guardiola raged at the officials during the closing stages against Saints, but here are some of the issues with his own players that will be causing concern.
"The intensity must be there from kick-off," Guardiola implored in vain in his matchday programme notes. Aside from the 8-0 demolition of Watford in September, the fast starts with which City frequently blitzed opponents during their title-winning seasons have been largely absent this time around.
Their goalless effort before the break in the 3-0 win over Aston Villa last weekend was dubbed a "relegation" performance by their manager. Atalanta scored first at the Etihad Stadium before being beaten in the Champions League and if the sluggishness beginnings against Wolves, Villa and Saints are on show at Anfield, City are likely to pay dearly.
Since Aymeric Laporte was laid low by a meniscus injury at the end of August, City have conceded in six of 12 matches in all competitions. Not a howling record by any means, but Guardiola is still searching for solutions without his ball-playing defensive lynchpin, both in and out of possession.
Fernandinho is having to acclimatise to a new position quicker than was originally planned, while Nicolas Otamendi's nightmare showing against Wolves appears to have cost him Guardiola's trust.
John Stones and left-back Benjamin Mendy – the latter rested against Southampton – are working their way back to form and match sharpness, while Walker is only recently back from a bout of illness. Overall, the picture painted is not one of the robust unit required to repel Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
3 - Ederson has made his third error leading to a goal in his Premier League career, with Man City failing to win the previous two games in which he did (1-1 v Everton August 2017, 3-4 v Liverpool January 2018). D'oh. #MCISOU— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 2, 2019
Under-performing attacking stars
If City were at their free-scoring best in attack, it would mask plenty of the defensive deficiencies. The problem is, they aren't. Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne are the only members of City's creative department who can claim to have reached top form this season, and both were way short of their best against Southampton.
Aguero pilfered the equaliser to move on to 13 goals from as many appearances this term but it is notable that Gabriel Jesus is pushing him harder for a starting place than he has for at least 18 months.
Riyad Mahrez's impressive start to the season has tailed off, while Bernardo Silva – City's player of the season in 2018-19 – was often utterly awful as Southampton's massed defensive ranks inflicted an afternoon of rain-sodden anxiety upon the champions.
Guardiola: Season four
This is only the second time the famously meticulous and intense Guardiola has entered a fourth season in charge of a club. The last time that happened in 2011-12, Barcelona were unable to hold off a relentless Real Madrid and conceded their LaLiga title.
This is a different time in a different league with a different set of players, with Guardiola older and wiser. But the common features of City's poor performances this season – predictable attacks, edginess under pressure and an endless parade of crosses (although those belatedly paid off on Saturday) – indicate the message from the dugout might be at least a little careworn.Modified 21 Dec 2019, 00:55 IST