Pep Guardiola accepts he has made life hard for himself at Manchester City with the high standards set in the past couple of seasons but not so hard that he wants to walk away. The Manchester City manager emphatically denied reports he may exercise an escape clause in his contract at the end of the season but conceded his side are struggling “behind an opponent that doesn’t drop points”.
By that he meant Liverpool, runaway leaders of the Premier League, though Guardiola was also prepared to concede Leicester, too, have opened up a gap on the defending champions.
“I should think about Leicester before Liverpool,” Guardiola said. “Unless we can catch Leicester there is not one thought in my mind about Liverpool. In the last years we were incredibly consistent at home and away but this time we have dropped points. It is not about the performances, I would be really concerned if I thought our game was not there but we have been allowing opponents clear chances and we have to work on that. The Chelsea game last month was the one where we struggled the most. They were the side who caused us the most problems by far, even though we won.”
There are reasons beyond Guardiola’s control for City’s inconsistency, most notably the absence through injury of Aymeric Laporte. John Stones, Sergio Agüero and David Silva are also likely to miss Sunday’s game at Arsenal and most teams would notice the loss of a quartet of such quality.
City have been deprived of the services of Benjamin Mendy and Leroy Sané through long-term medical problems, with no guarantee either player will be able to recover the performance level that persuaded the club to sign them.
Yet even without the injuries, and even if City had brought in an extra centre-half as cover for Laporte and the departed Vincent Kompany, Guardiola will admit to a nagging doubt at the back of his mind as to whether it was possible to repeat the feats of the previous two seasons, when the title was won with record totals of 100 and 98 points.
“I think maintaining that sort of level for three or four years was always going to be hard,” the City manager said. “I didn’t want to worry about it too much at the beginning of the season, I hoped we would be able to do it again but really I knew it would be difficult.
“When I arrived here the normal standard was 85 points to win the league; now you almost have to reach 100, and that seems to be what Liverpool are aiming for. We have helped them make that step, they have bought some incredible players and now it is the level you have to reach.
“All the teams behind Liverpool know they have to make 100 points if they want the title. Before it didn’t happen and we have been the reason why. I would have preferred to be closer to Liverpool at this point – to Leicester even – but maybe after four titles in one season we believe we are something we are not and the reality of sport is to ask questions of you again and again. All I can do now is hope the situation we are in will help us in the future.”
What comes around goes around, though, and while it might be Liverpool’s turn to approach perfection, it follows they too will find such a relentless standard hard to keep up.
“Well, they have maintained last season’s standards for this season,” Guardiola said. “This is their second season at such a high level and I think it helps that they haven’t won the league since a long time ago. They are keen to win it, you can smell that.
“I felt a bit the same when I first came to England and we took 78 points in the first season. There were just two or three players [actually around half a dozen] who had won the Premier League. The rest hadn’t but we wanted to feel the experience and lift the trophy. We still have things to play for this season but seven titles in three years is not bad considering the difficulty of this league.”
Arsenal are under the temporary care of Freddie Ljungberg following the almost inevitable departure of the unpopular Unai Emery, though Guardiola doubts whether his fellow Spaniard’s well-documented communication difficulties had much to do with his sacking.
“I cannot deny communication is important but so is winning games,” Guardiola said. “I didn’t find it easy to communicate in German but there are the hands, the body, the emotions, your assistants, many things. If Unai had been able to win more games people would have said his communication was perfect.”