Post-treble blues? Manchester City in sticky spot before Aston Villa trip
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Erling Haaland raged in the face of the referee. Ruben Dias threw his hands out in frustration. Jeers from Manchester City fans swirled around the ground.
The Etihad Stadium was a scene of outright anger in the final moments of a wild 3-3 draw against Tottenham Hotspur after a refereeing mistake denied City a potential stoppage-time winner for Jack Grealish.
The pent-up ire that manifested itself Sunday has been building, though.
City might finally be experiencing some post-treble blues.
There was always going to be some sort of comedown after being in soccer dreamland by becoming only the second team — after Manchester United in 1999 — to win the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League in the same season.
Pep Guardiola predicted it would happen. Former United players warned it would happen. It's taken a few months but maybe now it has happened.
It might only be a small drop-off but three straight draws in the Premier League represents the first time since Guardiola's first year in charge that City has gone through such a run of games in the competition without winning.
First there was a 4-4 draw at Chelsea, then a 1-1 draw with Liverpool and now the draw at home to an injury-hit Tottenham. Next there's a trip on Wednesday to Aston Villa, which has a flawless home record in the league, and City will be without its irreplaceable center midfielder, Rodri, because of suspension along with Jack Grealish (also suspension) and most likely Jeremy Doku, who came off injured against Spurs.
Arsenal, meanwhile, might be six points clear by the time of the Villa-City kickoff because the team at the top of the table plays Luton on Tuesday.
On the face of it, there might not be too many concerns. After all, City didn't lose any of those recent games, the gap to Arsenal is only three points at this early stage of the season and the team has already qualified for the round of 16 of the Champions League with a game to spare.
Indeed, it needed a stoppage-time penalty by Chelsea's Cole Palmer and a 90th-minute goal by Tottenham's Dejan Kulusevski to stop City winning those games.
Most teams would love to be in City's position right now.
There are some emerging issues, however, and the key area is in midfield.
City has been unable to exert control in the final sections of games, especially in midfield where Rodri has been overrun at times with Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs able to pour through with little resistance.
The absence of John Stones — who excels in the hybrid defender-midfielder role — because of injury has had a destabilizing effect. The decision to replace the departed Ilkay Gundogan with ball-carrying midfielders in Mateo Kovacic and Matheus Nunes, who haven't established themselves as regulars, has also robbed City of control.
Then there's that intangible: desire. Have City's treble-winning players got the desire to put in the extra effort to see out these close games? Focus seems to be an issue — take, for example, Dias' lazy challenge that gave away the late penalty at Chelsea.
Guardiola will have been prepared for all this. And he seems to be taking it somewhat in his stride, brushing off the late controversy in Sunday's game by saying he'd learned from mentor Johan Cruyff that "bad luck in football doesn't exist."
"Good teams are not defined by good moments," Guardiola said. "It's not the first time we have faced this situation where we are playing good but results don't come.
"Always we find a solution, but lately the results don't come and we are struggling."
Indeed, it was as late as February last season that many were saying City's trophy chances were dwindling. Guardiola wasn't trusting key players. Gundogan was complaining a spark had been lost.
A few months later, they won the treble.
Few would be surprised if City went on to retain the league title, but it will need the team to get back to being harder to play through and sturdier at the back.
Villa — with six wins from six at home this season and 23 goals scored in those games — will sense this is the perfect time to host the champions.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer