Pep Guardiola doesn’t deserve an easy ride: Neil Humphreys
Early signs point to slow, stumbling Man City not improving fast enough
For someone often depicted as the Confucius of modern management, Pep Guardiola hasn't made much sense lately.
His selections have been erratic. His decisions confuse rather than inspire and his inconsistency has proven infectious on the pitch.
In other words, Manchester City are all over the place, a mercurial bunch very much built in their manager's current image.
The most expensive squad in British football, bankrolled by near-limitless funds, find themselves in 13th position after five English Premier League games, as their leader trudges through the worst start in his illustrious managerial career.
And yet, the cerebral one seems to escape the rancour often reserved for the likes of Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
As City head to Marseille for their Champions League Group C encounter tomorrow morning (Singapore time), their lethargic performances and Guardiola's strange line-ups have raised the odd eyebrow, but no more than that.
The Spaniard has always enjoyed a comparatively smooth ride in English football, despite some questionable responses of late.
His casual dismissal of Sergio Aguero's patronising arm around the neck of a female official was the most recent example of a failure to read the room.
Guardiola enjoys a degree of latitude that is not always shared by his managerial peers.
After a sluggish start, Liverpool quickly suffered the hysterical cries of "one-season wonders" and criticism that last season's scintillating form wasn't being replicated in empty stadiums.
Only goal difference keeps the apparent "one-season wonders" off the top spot.
City, on the other hand, slipped beneath the radar, despite a one-paced 1-1 slog at West Ham United as another two points were frittered away.
Guardiola's injury list and fixture congestion are familiar laments - for every club - but he has undermined his own defence with some baffling decisions.
Last week, he criticised the "completely crazy" schedule for clubs playing in Europe - City are in the middle of three away fixtures in eight days.
Between international breaks, they face seven games in 23 days, which makes Guardiola's decision to field an unchanged side against West Ham seem like a bizarre act of defiance.
The serial tinkerer has never managed a side he couldn't tweak. Since October 2017, Guardiola has not repeated a first XI in consecutive games. Across 172 contests, there was always at least one change in his line-ups.
And yet, just days after bemoaning the fixture list, he named an unchanged side for the trip to West Ham, despite playing Porto only three days earlier.
One of Guardiola's finest attributes is his management of resources. Admittedly, City boast more resources than most, but their manager's constant pruning and cultivating - from game to game - showcased their strength in depth.
Indeed, Guardiola's bench has typically been his 12th man. Opponents shrank at City's quality warming up on the touchline.
But Guardiola sent out weary men against the Hammers. The fear factor swiftly evaporated at the London Stadium, along with any sense of invincibility or attacking spontaneity.
In recent years, City have used West Ham for target practice. Last Saturday, they were content to take a point. Seven have already been dropped in five games, confirming the worst domestic start of Guardiola's managerial career.
Injuries are a valid concern, but they are not really in the areas where City are currently floundering.
Aymeric Laporte and Nathan Ake are still working their way to full fitness, but City's central defence hasn't rung alarm bells with the same dramatic velocity of last season, even if Eric Garcia's inclusion irritates a section of the fan base.
The 19-year-old makes no secret of his Barcelona plans at the end of this campaign. He's practically blowing kisses at the Catalan side.
And still, Guardiola picks the distracted Garcia over John Stones.
But a lack of attacking fluidity remains the overriding issue. Until Phil Foden's introduction against West Ham, City were worryingly predictable.
Once Aguero went off injured, Raheem Sterling only encouraged cynics to believe that the forward still cannot quite lead the line.
Without Kevin de Bruyne, City stutter where they once flowed. The Belgian's recovery must be managed carefully. So why he played 93 minutes across two unimportant League Cup fixtures is just another head-scratcher to ponder.
This is no crisis, obviously, but Guardiola does find himself at a fascinating crossroads. Filter out the white noise of injury and fixture pile-ups and a stagnating team remains.
City may not be progressing quickly enough to improve Guardiola's record of two EPL titles across four seasons.
Of course, he was hired to win the Champions League rather than the EPL.
Right now, there's little to suggest he'll win either.