Manchester City spent 82 minutes of Monday’s game against Everton painfully reliving all the worst moments of last season, until Raheem Sterling struck to grab a point which will do little to reassure Pep Guardiola.
Towards the end of Guardiola’s first season in English football, both he and the City fans had become accustomed to watching the same match play out over and over again.
A spell of spirited but eventually fruitless games against the top clubs in spring ensured City fell further adrift of the table toppers, suffered early elimination from the Champions League, and could not even fall back FA Cup glory.
There is always a promise of more, of better, going into a new season, but the City boss will know there is plenty of work to do before he can gel his impressively talented squad into consistent winners.
The temptation is to say that the Blues treated the Etihad Stadium crowd to more of the same old stuff on Monday evening, but, despite a spirited fight-back with 10 men, the worry for Guardiola is that things were often worse.
Heading into this game, the most gloomy of City fans expected a repeat performance of last season’s 1-1 draw with Everton – plenty of control, plenty of chances, a dodgy goal conceded on the break and two points gone begging.
All that did indeed happen, and throw in a dodgy refereeing decision – Kyle Walker was extremely unfortunate to be sent off – and it was tempting to say this was truly a microcosm of last season. Only without any measure of control, and for large parts a real lack of cohesion in attack. That is what will concern Guardiola the most.
While City did miss big chances – Sergio Aguero and Sterling the main culprits – it’s not as if the hosts were at any point banging the door down, as they had done on many occasions last season, even on the most frustrating of nights.
There was plenty of energy towards the end, and an admirable attempt to turn the result on its head right until the death, but the truth is that the damage had been done by one piece of poor defending and sloppy attacking play for the majority of the match.
Even at 0-0, before Wayne Rooney notched his 200th Premier League goal , City’s attack looked disjointed. The feeling is that Guardiola is playing his side into the 3-5-2 formation early in the season so they are better able to switch between approaches as the campaign wears on. But here it looked like the attacking players were all on different wavelengths; either making the wrong run or the wrong pass. Possibly even both.
The 3-5-2 is also supposed to offer a measure of control, as seen at Brighton last weekend. The defence and goalkeeper should be better protected, the forwards should have more of the ball, and chances would need to be carefully eked out.
Here, though, City often lacked any kind of fluidity in their play, the kind that they had even on some of the most frustrating games last season. Even when City suffered frustrating draws last season their forwards were able to set up camp in the opposition half, work closely together and try to unpick the mass of defenders. Here they too often looked like strangers.
On the one occasion they managed to link up as a result of some creative brilliance, David Silva could only strike against the foot of the post following a sublime Aguero through ball.
Had it gone in it would have been enough for Aguero to make amends for a baffling bout of the yips when put through on goal by Kevin De Bruyne.
The home crowd would have started to worry at this point and, sure enough, a mistake at the back – committed by Leroy Sane – allowed Everton in, and after Fernandinho went to ground early and John Stones was caught on his heels, new keeper Ederson was slightly unfortunate to let Rooney’s shot creep between his legs and off the post. Had it been Claudio Bravo, etc etc…
Then the red card, which City will not even be able to appeal given Walker picked up two yellows, made matters worse.
Yet Guardiola, as he did as Bayern Munich manager here in 2014, sent his players out with the brief of filling as many spaces as possible, in a bid to make up for the missing man. Fernandinho flitted between left-back and central midfield, the inside midfielders switched with the wingers. It helped that Everton sat back and invited pressure but City did at last start to dictate the play as they would have wanted from the start.
Sterling fired a gilt-edged chance over the bar and new boy Bernardo Silva, who otherwise looked as smooth as silk, ballooned a volley over the bar.
It did indeed appear that all of the worst elements of last season had come back to haunt City, until Sterling rifled in a technically superb volley with eight minutes to go.
Guardiola will worry that, had they even managed that, somebody would have contrived to miss.