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    Pep Guardiola's rare transfer mistakes irritate as Manchester City are missing key duo

    Riyad Mahrez (left) and Ilkay Gundogan left Manchester City last summer after winning the treble. Photo: Getty Images/Visionhaus

    Manchester City sit third in the Premier League and Pep Guardiola admits they are no longer favorites to win a fourth title in a row. They scored fewer goals than Liverpool and conceded more than Arsenal. They won none of their four matches against their two title rivals and just one of their five home games against the traditional big six. In contrast to each of the last six seasons, City do not boast the best expected goal difference in the league, and that distinction belongs to Arsenal.

    City's best players may still be their best – another treble remains a possibility, after all – but they are not performing at their best with the usual, unerring regularity. They pass like City and dominate like City, but something is missing, especially at the sharp end.

    This can be partly explained by uncharacteristic imprecision in the transfer market. Just as City's gritty football has come closer to perfection under Guardiola, the club has also become remarkably efficient at recruiting players. They had enormous wealth at their disposal, but City were careful in choosing their targets and for a long time did not miss a single step.

    That clarity of vision and enviable level of success was faltering a bit. Guardiola has tried to rejuvenate his central midfield positions in each of the last two years, with talented players such as Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice moving elsewhere.

    Since 2022, City have spent £125 million on Kalvin Phillips, Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunez. Phillips' time at City was a disaster for the club and the player, and he is currently on loan at West Ham United. Kovacic is a quality continuity player but cannot replace the goalscorer offered by the departed Ilkay Gundogan. Nunez's ability on the ball marks him out as a talent, but he doesn't look a purely stylistic fit for City and has yet to be trusted against elite opposition. City still rely on the goals and creativity of 32-year-old Kevin De Bruyne.

    Kevin De Bruyne had a bad season due to injuries. Photo: Reuters/Lee Smith

    On the flanks, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Cole Palmer have been sold since the summer of 2022. Jack Grealish was an important player during the Treble campaign, offering control over Erling Haaland, but whether he has proven his worth at £100m is an open question. Jeremy Doku can be a match-winner, but he is inconsistent in the box. At present, it appears that neither striker is the Goldilocks option that Guardiola needs.

    With the departures of Mahrez and Gundogan last summer, City lost two reliable sources of goal contributions who were never directly replaced. Mahrez has scored 15 goals in each of City's last three title campaigns. Gundogan is almost equal to Mahrez with 39 goals in the last three league seasons. At the end of last season, Gundogan scored both goals in a 2-1 win over Leeds, the first two goals in a 3-0 win over Everton and both goals in the FA Cup final against Manchester United.Kovacic, who supposedly replaced Gundogan, has zero goals and zero assists in the league. Doku has two league goals and five assists to his name, but four of those came in one game against Bournemouth in November. De Bruyne has failed to produce his usual performances after missing half the season with a hamstring injury. Bernardo Silva's six goals and four assists were a respectable return, while Phil Foden produced his most impressive return to date with 11 goals and seven assists. Julián Alvarez has eight goals and seven assists, but only two of them have come since the start of the year. Both were against Burnley.

    Where City's attack used to be rotational, it is now driven by Haaland, the world's top scorer. However, for the first time since his first season at Borussia Dortmund in 2019/20, Haaland has not performed as expected, scoring fewer goals than would be expected given the quality of the chances he has received. He missed one period due to injury but is only halfway to last year's incredible 36 league goals. The Norwegian's relative coolness in front of goal could well be the difference between home draws with Spurs, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal or victories.

    Sterile possession has been the theme of City's season

    Balancing Haaland's team , De Bruyne and Foden are City's three most potent strikers – maintaining the desired control of both possession and opposition counter-attacks has also been a challenge for Guardiola. De Bruyne hooked up with Kovacic during a chaotic second half at Anfield in a bid to restore order.

    Foden was moved to the left to accommodate Kovacic against Arsenal but played a minor role in City's rough game. Sterile possession has also been a theme of City's season. Just 5.5 per cent of their completed passes went into the opposition penalty area, compared to 7.2 per cent for Arsenal and 7.6 per cent for Liverpool.

    City remain formidable but does not take full advantage of its vast resources and position of dominance. Their season could still end with open-top buses and champagne, but they'll have to do it the hard way.

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