Ilkay Gundogan can always be relied upon to offer a frank and honest answer, as well as insight on the mood within the Manchester City dressing room.
Gundogan has spoken candidly in the past, saying after the Champions League quarter-final first leg defeat by Tottenham Hotspur two seasons ago that he and his “nervous” team-mates often make “the wrong decisions”.
Then, when City were without a clean sheet in six games following a disappointing group stage draw with Shakhtar Donetsk last year, Gundogan claimed that they had to improve defensively if they wanted to consider themselves as “a top team”.
And even after Wednesday night’s winning start to a new Champions League campaign, the 29-year-old openly admitted that things could be going better.
“If I’m being honest we are struggling at the moment,” he said, despite scoring the free-kick which led City on their way to a fractious, hard-fought but ultimately deserved 3-1 win over Porto.
Gundogan was speaking not long after seeing Fernandinho limp off the Etihad pitch and Pep Guardiola later confirmed that City’s captain will be unavailable for up to six weeks with an injury he sustained in a five-minute cameo off the substitutes’ bench.
Fernandinho joins Gabriel Jesus and Benjamin Mendy on the treatment table. Nathan Ake missed Wednesday’s game with a minor groin problem. Kevin de Bruyne and Aymeric Laporte are expected back in training but still may not be available this weekend’s trip to West Ham.
Sergio Aguero is finally fit again but, despite scoring a penalty against Porto, has some way to go before rediscovering his form. And Gundogan is one of three City players – along with Laporte and Riyad Mahrez – that have had to contend with and recover from coronavirus.
“We have players playing in different positions. I am not 100% there because I had Covid,” he admitted on Wednesday night.
“We are not all at the same moment. That is the challenge for this season, it’s not going to end for a while. It’s not going to be difficult for Pep to pick an XI because players are going to be tired.”
Guardiola himself was equally downbeat about City’s injury situation.
“It’s bad news,” he said of Fernandinho’s predicament, while the news on De Bruyne and Laporte’s potential returns did not make things much better. It was still a case of two steps forward, one step back. “Unfortunately people came back and now we have lost another.”
“In three days we go to London and after we travel to France to play against Marseille and then Sheffield three days after,” Guardiola added. “The schedules are so demanding and we need all the players.”
This has been a quietly challenging start to the season at City, coming so quickly after the chastening Champions League quarter-final defeat to Olympique Lyonnais in Lisbon.
Two months later, that result is yet to be fully digested – Guardiola said earlier this week he still feels a burden of responsibility for it – while one look at Luis Diaz’s opening goal for Porto tells you the defensive issues which undid City in Lisbon persist.
There have been very few of the dominant wins with which they are normally associated. Only the 3-0 EFL Cup win at a depleted and demotivated Burnley falling into that category.
Despite falling behind against Porto, City had still only managed four shots on Agustin Marchesin’s goal by the hour mark. Against Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, they were on top without ever truly being in control. The less said about Leicester and Leeds, the better.
It all contributes to an overriding sense that City are not quite firing on all cylinders.
There are two factors in their favour, though. For one, the same could be said of just about every other Premier League club and Champions League contender at the start of this most unusual of seasons.
But secondly, and more importantly, even though they have been unable to get all their key players fit at once and all their ducks in a row, City are still finding ways to win.
Porto employed exactly the sort of game plan which typically causes City problems – Guardiola went as far as to suggest Sergio Conceicao had ‘copied and pasted’ Leicester’s set-up from the 5-2 defeat – but they survived.
City largely coped with Moussa Marega’s physical threat and hold up play. Porto’s dangerous counter-attacking wing play was nullified, particularly during the second half. Diaz’s goal was a poor one to concede but at least City’s response was immediate.
And all that without De Bruyne, without Laporte, without Jesus or an in-form Aguero.
Gundogan’s remarks ring true. City are not at their best yet, and perhaps even “struggling” a little like he says. Yet this team has set the bar so high over the past few seasons that they do not need to be at their best to be more than good enough.
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