LIVERPOOL, England — The New Year brings a new sensation for manager Pep Guardiola.
A man so accustomed to winning — and with room to spare — goes into 2017 with his Manchester City team 10 points adrift of the Premier League summit, closer to sixth than first, after Liverpool on Saturday inflicted City’s fourth league defeat of the season.
Never before during his gilded career as a coach has Guardiola had a challenge like the one he faces at City; it is debatable as to whether he expected life in England to prove so difficult when he arrived from Bayern Munich last summer.
Manager Antonio Conte has enjoyed a different experience, even after arriving late at Chelsea because of his Euro 2016 commitments with Italy. The Stamford Bridge club are on a remarkable 13-game winning streak and end the year six points clear of second-place Liverpool.
Conte has raised Chelsea’s game all over the pitch, polishing rough diamonds in Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, re-energising Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, and even finding a way to banish all the doubts over David Luiz’s defensive capabilities.
Yet after reaching the halfway stage of the season at City, where are the improvements and coaching victories that Guardiola can point to at the Etihad Stadium?
Despite having one of the world’s most renowned coaches, City’s position after 19 league games is not what anyone at the club — from owner Sheikh Mansour, through to Guardiola, the players and the supporters — would have anticipated.
There have been high points, such as the first-half performance in a win versus Manchester United at Old Trafford in September, or the Champions League victory at home to Barcelona two months later. However, there have been more bad days, such as losing at home to Chelsea and being trounced by Leicester a week apart at the start of December.
And despite a 10-game winning streak at the outset of the campaign that had many heralding Guardiola as a football miracle worker, there have been precious few examples of City’s players getting better as individuals under the former Bayern and Barcelona coach.
Fernandinho is a model of consistency, but the Brazilian midfielder rarely let previous manager Manuel Pellegrini down and his improvement this season may merely be a result of having a more pivotal role in the frequent absence of Yaya Toure, who hasn’t played much. Beyond Fernandinho, though, how many of City’s squad are better and more consistent than at the end of last season?
John Stones started brightly but is now showing the defensive lapses that cursed his rise at Everton. Midfielder Raheem Sterling, meanwhile, did improve in the second half Saturday at Anfield after a poor first 45 minutes, but he continues to disappoint when he has the ball in the final third.
Liverpool’s players, in contrast, have stepped up another level under Jurgen Klopp’s management. He has got into the heads of Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson, Dejan Lovren and Roberto Firmino, all of whom are more influential and consistent performers than they were under Brendan Rodgers.
Klopp has had over a year to impose his methods at Anfield, so Guardiola can therefore point to having less time with City, but the Spaniard’s problem is that Conte’s success at Chelsea diminishes the value of that argument.
City are actually three points better off than at this stage last season, when they also ended the calendar year in third place, though Pellegrini’s team were just three points adrift of the leaders. Twelve months on, there are still puzzles for Guardiola to solve throughout his team
The defensive frailties of the Pellegrini era remain; City continue to have problems at full-back and Guardiola has been unable to resolve those. Indeed, his faith in Aleksandar Kolarov may actually be exacerbating the problem. In Liverpool’s 1-0 victory on Saturday, the Serbian left-back once again made a costly mistake that led to Georginio Wijnaldum’s winning goal.
The loss to injury of Ilkay Gundogan has been a setback, with the defensively vulnerable Toure forced to fill the void, but the confidence and swagger of the early weeks of the season had evaporated long before Gundogan was sidelined by a cruciate knee ligament injury.
Elsewhere, Claudio Bravo remains an issue in goal — the Chilean is too erratic to be considered an upgrade on the banished Joe Hart — and the team lack genuine quality as cover for Sergio Aguero up front.
The arrival of 19-year-old Brazilian Gabriel Jesus will help shift the load currently on Aguero, who was starved of service Saturday in his first game after a four-game suspension, but expecting Jesus to solve City’s problems is perhaps placing too much pressure on a teenager new to English football.
And so, six months into his reign, Guardiola is still attempting to find all the pieces to fix his jigsaw into place. With sixth-place Manchester United now just three points behind City, Guardiola may have to look over his shoulder as often as he looks forward in the coming weeks; that was never the plan.
In such a competitive season, City could finish sixth as easily as they could finish first. Consistency will decide which clubs fill the top positions in May, and Guardiola’s side have holes to plug before they can kill any fears of finishing outside the Champions League places.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_