LONDON — Is this what victory fatigue looks like? A lap of honour around Wembley Stadium, following a 2-1 victory over Aston Villa, a third successive Carabao Cup triumph, played out to a half-full Manchester City section, with the other half having already headed for the car parks and train station.
If you count Community Shields — the Football Association still classifies its preseason curtain-raiser as a friendly, rather than a competitive fixture — then City have won the last six domestic trophies on offer in England. Add in that in 2018 they also won the Premier League and Carabao Cup, and Chelsea — that year’s FA Cup winners — are the only club other than City to win any of the last nine domestic trophies.
Repetitive winning can lead to complacency and success being taken for granted in any sport, not just football, but as those City fans headed to the exit doors while Pep Guardiola and his players showed off the Carabao Cup once again, it hinted at a sense that this was just another trophy.
But City supporters must be careful because this 2-1 victory over Aston Villa also suggested that their team’s remarkable run may also be coming to an end. Fatigue off the pitch was matched by a sense of time catching up with Guardiola’s players on it.
Make no mistake, this is still a formidable team and it is one which could finally end the club’s desperate pursuit of the Champions League this season. But this City side is closer to the end of its cycle than the beginning, so their supporters should appreciate every piece of silverware that is won because great players need replacing and the dominant teams of the Premier League era — Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea — can all attest that there are no guarantees when it comes to finding men to fill the holes left behind by club legends.
Liverpool, despite their shock defeat at Watford on Saturday, will soon dethrone City as Premier League champions, so Guardiola and his players have already slipped from the summit. Their football is not as dominant as over the past two years — seven defeats in all competitions this season tells you that — and only Kevin De Bruyne sticks out as a player who has raised his play in 2019-20.
City have room for improvement and the question now is whether they can rebuild and reclaim their title, and just how long that task will take. Even if they are able to overturn the two-season Champions League ban imposed by UEFA last month, City will need new blood to go again. But if that ban is upheld, all bets are off as to what may happen to Guardiola’s squad.
Regardless of what happens at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, there are holes which need to be plugged in the City squad this summer and they were exposed by a Villa team which started the day among the Premier League’s bottom three.
At the back, City are vulnerable. Oleksandr Zinchenko is not the top-class left-back that City need and he was caught out of position more than once as Villa attacked down their right. John Stones also had another afternoon to forget at centre-half, with his first-half slip leading directly to Mbwana Samatta‘s goal for Villa. The England defender has endured a torrid season due to injury and loss of form and his lack of action when available points to Guardiola no longer fully trusting for the former Everton man.
While Fernandinho is always an able deputy at centre-half, his best position continues to be in midfield where, at 34, he remains a better option than 23-year-old Rodri, the man signed as his long-term replacement last summer. Fellow midfielder Ilkay Gundogan is another who heads into the summer with a question mark over his ability to take City back to the top. The German has been plagued by injuries at City and he no longer possesses the mobility to get around the pitch, and lacks the dynamism that Guardiola requires alongside the heavy-footed Rodri.
David Silva, 34, has already confirmed that he will leave the Etihad when his contract expires this summer and Sergio Aguero, City’s all-time record scorer, is out of contract at the end of next season. The 31-year-old has insisted on numerous occasions that he wants to return to his native Argentine to play for boyhood club Independiente when his time in Manchester comes to an end and with City’s future in Europe up in the air, that time could be here sooner rather than later.
City, of course, can still count on De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and Aymeric Laporte in the years ahead. Phil Foden, the home-grown midfielder who played a key role in both City goals at Wembley on Sunday and was voted the official man of the match, is also a bright spot of hope for the future at the club, with the 19-year-old projected to be a first-team regular for the next decade.
Foden so far stands alone as a proven graduate of the club’s well-resourced youth set-up and he remains an exception, rather than the rule, as a product of City’s Academy. The club need more “Fodens” and also perhaps four new players to take the team back to its previously high levels over the past few seasons.
All great teams have the ability to deliver, however, no matter how many of their players have already hit the peak of their careers and this City side will not be far away in the FA Cup or Champions League this season. But if the City fans who skipped the lap of honour want to see as many trophies in the years ahead as they have seen recently, they may have to watch other clubs claiming silverware while their own team goes through a period of transition that now seems inevitable.