Man City's loss to Liverpool leaves Pep Guardiola with questions about squad
A curious sense of calm fell across the away support at Anfield as it dawned on them that their team was, after all, still fallible, still human and, on this occasion, in patches still a tiny bit useless. Manchester City's 30-game unbeaten run in the Premier League came to an abrupt and somewhat chaotic end.
The run, unparalleled in City's history and the sixth longest in the English top flight, is bookended by a defeat in London to Chelsea on Apr. 5 and Sunday's trip to the red side of Liverpool.
City will now be especially keen to press on from a weekend where firstly defeat raised its ugly head, then Alexis Sanchez appeared to turn his back on a move to the Etihad and choose neighbours United. Maybe his geography is just a little out or his agent's penchant for brinkmanship has taken precedence, but it will be seen by many as another defeat in a few days brim full of harsh realities.
Pep Guardiola will now be surveying his squad with an extra cautious eye to see what needs to be done. Liverpool's victory exposed City's defence as a work in progress and the midfield as a unit that can suddenly lack cohesion if David Silva is absent.
It wasn't unexpected when it came, but Liverpool's hard press and early waves of suffocating attacking turned City's usually effortless mastery of possession into a sudden flurry of errors.
With Fernandinho's legs turning inexplicably to spaghetti, Ilkay Gundogan -- a surprise inclusion ahead of the master space finder Silva -- running into trouble in his attempts to give Leroy Sane the support he thrives on out on the left and Raheem Sterling totally under the influence of the baying crowd, City were suddenly ripe to being picked off.
That four unchallenged mistakes undid City was unusual in the extreme. This side has built their reputation on the laser precision of passing and an inscrutable attention to detail. Suddenly, comic errors were coming time and time again.
What Guardiola will have learned about his players is unclear. Did he expect Sterling to melt when he realised referee Andre Marriner was not disposed to protecting him from Andrew Robertson's robust attention? Did he think Gundogan could ably replace Silva in a match that was set up so perfectly for the Spaniard's range of short-passing skills? Did he know that Stones would again look so out of sorts after his injury layoff?
With Silva confined to the bench, Kevin De Bruyne -- the season's outstanding player in the Premier League -- was left to attempt to break free of Emre Can's suffocating presence. De Bruyne grew steadily into the game, displaying once more the fibre, quality of pass and sheer determination that has turned him into the Footballer of the Year-in-waiting. The little bursts, the riding of the tackles, the precision crosses all began to pop and fizz, as the Belgian dragged City back into it.
De Bruyne's pale skin, languid style and lung-bursting capacity to cover all areas of the pitch make him look more and more like a modern reincarnation of City's best-ever player, Colin Bell, as the weeks go by.
With the long-standing deal for Sanchez now dead in the water, even more pressure falls on De Bruyne as the master creator to maintain City's momentum going into the critical months of February and March. With Silva only intermittently available to share the creative workload, De Bruyne's fitness and form will be absolutely crucial to City's four-trophy quest.
With Sanchez opting to go elsewhere, the spotlight will fall on alternatives. City's squad contains much quality, but is thin in certain areas. With Vincent Kompany and John Stones injured, Eliaquim Mangala has found his way into the team of late, but anyone considering the Frenchman fit for purpose in the latter stages of the Champions League may find themselves in a marked minority.
On the left Fabian Delph, already a replacement for the injured Benjamin Mendy, is himself now out. Danilo has not looked a good fit on that side so far. Up front, too, the reliance on a struggling Sergio Aguero is causing problems, while Gabriel Jesus is also laid up for some weeks yet.
Stick or twist in the transfer window, that is the question. City's response to this latest conundrum will go a long way to deciding City's fate between now and the end of May.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.