Ilkay Gundogan blamed a congested calendar in a unique season for Manchester City’s failure to match the standards they have set under Pep Guardiola after a 1-1 draw with West Brom dealt another blow to their title challenge.
Gundogan appeared to have opened the floodgates on the half hour mark, but Ruben Dias’s own goal two minutes before half-time proved costly as City’s problems in front of goal continued in a goalless second-half.
City have won just five of their opening 12 league games of the season, a far cry from the combined 198 points they registered in two title-winning campaigns under Guardiola in 2017/18 and 2018/19.
Even last season when finishing distant runners-up to Liverpool, City scored 102 league goals, but the stale domination that has characterised a lacklustre campaign was in evidence all night as they struggled to break through West Brom’s deep-lying defence.
“We had great years where we played great football in the past so we set the level high,” said Gundogan. “All over Europe all the big teams are struggling with the tight fixtures and it’s not going to be easier in the next weeks. That’s an explanation why it is not always as easy as the expectations people have for us. We are not machines but we also know when we have not played our best game.”
City could have moved to within three points of leaders Tottenham and Liverpool, who meet on Wednesday. Instead Guardiola’s men edge up to fifth on goal difference, still five points off the top.
“These games you have to win, we know it, so we drop points,” admitted Guardiola. “It’s not far away the top of the league, but you have to win games. Still we are in early December and there are a lot of games to play.”
City enjoyed 77 percent possession and had 26 shots on goal, but not until a late flurry of crosses from Kevin De Bruyne produced two stunning saves from Sam Johnstone to deny Gundogan and Raheem Sterling were West Brom opened up.
“We created enough to win the game. We did everything but in the end you have to score,” added Guardiola. “We have to be optimistic that in the end we will score goals.”
West Brom had the first big chance of the game when the ball ricocheted off Joao Cancelo into the path of Karlan Grant and he forced Ederson into a fine save low to his left.
City’s probing was finally rewarded on the half hour as Sterling got to the by-line and his cut back was fired home from the edge of the area by Gundogan.
But the hosts shot themselves in the foot by conceding for the first time in seven games two minutes before half-time as they failed to clear a free-kick into the box and Semi Ajayi’s shot was deflected into his own net by Dias.
It was one-way traffic after the break as City set up camp in the West Brom half but lacked the imagination or pace to open the visitors up.
De Bruyne was the most likely candidate to produce the inspiration his side needed but twice Johnstone in the West Brom goal denied the Belgian with low saves to his left.
Guardiola brought City’s all-time record scorer Sergio Aguero off the bench for the final 15 minutes, but the Argentine’s lack of match sharpness after a series of injury problems showed as he slashed wide the sort of chance he has so often buried.
Johnstone’s heroics in stoppage time to deny Gundogan and Sterling earned his side a valuable draw that moves them to within two points of safety.