Even Guardiola will, occasionally, through gritted teeth, hint that something has been missing, though he is yet to suggest to the public what it is or why he thinks that might be. He has always felt, he said, “like even when we lost points, we were there.” Equally, though, he believes that his team’s problems “started with the winning goal being ruled out against Tottenham,” he said, referencing a 2-2 draw in the second week of the season.
Perhaps it is hunger, or a lack of it; perhaps it is complacency, a tendency to “believe we are something we are not,” as Guardiola has referred to it. Perhaps it is weariness, after two years of relentless success and three years of Guardiola’s incessant demands. Perhaps opponents are starting to adapt to the way City plays, to find slightly more effective methods of disturbing its rhythm.
And yet, to watch Guardiola’s team play Leicester City on Saturday, it was hard to believe that any of those doubts, any of those problems, had been real at all.
Leicester arrived at the Etihad Stadium ahead of Manchester City in the table, hailed as one of the revelations of the season, a side full of courage and youth and pace and perfectly designed to exploit its host’s newfound weaknesses.
Jamie Vardy, in particular, seems to revel in facing Guardiola’s team, in stretching his legs into the wide open spaces that City’s adventurous defensive line leaves in their wake. That this was City’s first game since the departure of Mikel Arteta — Guardiola’s trusted assistant, a well-liked, sincerely respected member of staff — to become the manager of Arsenal seemed to confirm that this was Leicester’s chance to make a statement.
When Brendan Rodgers’s Leicester left, it was still ahead of City in the table. In every other respect, though, it had been put in its place. Reports of the demise of Manchester City’s aura are, clearly, exaggerated. For all the talk of flaws, for all the worries and weaknesses, for all the reading of the runes that Guardiola has been subjected to, Saturday was a reminder of just how potent City can be, that greatness does not just evaporate in the space of a few months.