MANCHESTER – Pep Guardiola had enough to worry about even before Manchester City became embroiled in probably the biggest Premier League scandal of all time.
Off the field, City is facing accusations that the club breached a slew of financial regulations with its lavish spending. On it, Guardiola faces his own battle to defend the league title and keep his team's season on track.
While City's position in the standings remains healthy enough, five points behind leader Arsenal in second place, Sunday's loss to Tottenham fed into a growing feeling that all is not right within the club. That was the case even before Monday's bombshell action by the Premier League.
Indeed, there has been a sense of unease and uncertainty around the club for much of the season. Erling Haaland is increasingly becoming a point of scrutiny when trying to decipher what is going wrong at City.
“Erling has been fantastic. No one says anything when he’s scoring goals and winning," City defender Kyle Walker said. "All of sudden now when we don’t win and he doesn’t score, they say, ‘Is it the problem? Do we play better without him?’ I hear it all the time."
Walker has a point, but his comments also suggest doubts from outside the club are filtering through to the players.
Haaland has been outstanding, scoring 31 goals in 27 games. Yet City has become more predictable as a result of having such a prominent target at center forward.
In recent years, Guardiola has relied on goals from all over his team, making it more difficult for opposition defenses to close down areas of threat. While City's total of 53 goals after 21 games is identical to its record at the same point last season, it has picked up eight points fewer.
Even with the addition of Haaland, City is finding it more difficult to win games — three less than at this stage last term.
The problems, however, do not rest on Haaland's shoulders alone. He is, after all, producing remarkable numbers in front of goal. And Guardiola seems focused on other areas of his squad. Last month, he noted that a team that has won four of the last five league titles has lost its edge.
“We are far away from the team we had in previous seasons," Guardiola said. “Do you think we are going to chase the gap to Arsenal the way we are playing? No way.”
With a squad packed with world class players, Guardiola has the luxury of leaving out some of his biggest names in a bid to freshen things up.
Phil Foden, one of the brightest young talents in Europe, has been a peripheral figure at times this season. Ruben Dias, voted player of the year in England and the best defender in the Champions League in 2021, has not started a league game since October or any for City since November. Joao Cancelo was loaned to Bayern Munich on transfer deadline day after he was benched in recent weeks.
Most peculiar of all, however, was the decision to bench Kevin De Bruyne against Tottenham.
Guardiola is known for making unexpected calls, but to leave De Bruyne out of such an important game was a major statement that backfired as City lost 1-0 and missed out on the chance to cut Arsenal's lead to two points.
Guardiola seems to be searching for ways to get a reaction out of his squad at a point in the campaign when there is still all to play for. The departure of Cancelo and benching of De Bruyne look like drastic attempts to make his point, but also raise questions about what he will try to do next.
Guardiola is into his seventh year at City — he has never stayed at any club so long since becoming a coach. He may now have to oversee his most extensive squad rebuild since first taking over in 2016.
That is for the future, though. Right now, City is still in contention to win three trophies.
Solving the problems off the field, however, could be much more difficult.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson