It was an afternoon that went from bad to worse for Manchester City, and beyond. A 2-0 defeat that flattered them with Marko Arnautovic doing all he can to not score a hat-trick and the excellent Xherdan Shaqiri and Bojan also wayward in front of goal.
City were anonymous and it was the individuals not on the field that stood out the most as without Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero, City look a mix of vulnerable in defence and meek in attack.
Never mind the sheer quantity of Arsenal’s injuries, City need only to lose these two players and they look a totally different side.
Of their six defeats this season, Kompany has been absent from five, while the sixth – September’s 2-1 home defeat to Juventus – saw the Belgian depart five minutes before Alvaro Morata’s winner. In the seven Premier League games he has missed, they have failed to keep a single clean sheet.
In three of their four scoreless matches, Aguero hasn’t been in the matchday squad – Juve, again, the exception. Admittedly any team in the world would struggle to replicate their best form without Aguero, but City are a team with vaster resources than most.
Against Stoke, Wilfried Bony had zero shots on target, made just one touch inside the Stoke penalty area and lasted 57 minutes. As poor as he was, to have Pellegrini’s only option off the bench as 19-year-old Kelechi Iheanacho is a damning assessment of a summer transfer window when Stevan Jovetic, Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko were all allowed to leave the club.
In Bony’s defence, he is nowhere near the same type of striker as Aguero; not as mobile, skillful or capable of making the same runs.
Yet Pellegrini’s gameplan appears to remain unwavered, irrespective of who is leading the line. Aguero is adaptable and can play with his back to goal, as a link-up forward or in behind the defence.
Bony is not as malleable. He requires the ball into feet or in areas where he can isolate defenders with his strength.
Bojan completed 8 take-ons during his time on the pitch, more than De Bruyne, Sterling and Silva combined (6). pic.twitter.com/v1bA8sqZkm
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) December 5, 2015
City, though, do have goalscoring reinforcements from midfield, and can usually compensate with Raheem Sterling, Yaya Toure, De Bruyne or David Silva – four underperforming against Stoke. Contrastly, Kompany’s absence is looking increasingly incurable.
Defensively, City weren’t weakened in the summer and the arrival of Nicolas Otamendi, La Liga’s best defender in 2014-15, theoretically only enhanced this department.
But Kompany is a leader and organiser, and an offside trap that is clinical when he is in the team, becomes haphazard and dangerous when in placed the hands of Otamendi, Martin Demichelis and Eliaquim Mangala.
Positionally, City’s defence looked like it was comprised of strangers, pulled apart by Shaqiri’s vision, Arnautovic’s movement and Bojan’s craft. That just wouldn’t happen on Kompany’s watch.
What’s troubling for Manuel Pellegrini is that both Aguero and Kompany are injury prone; starting just 60 and 53 per cent of City’s league games this season, respectively.
If that ratio continues they’ll finish with 23 and 20 appearances. On the evidence so far, that would see any title bid fall well short.
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