Pep Guardiola: What next for Man City and their manager?
Pep Guardiola finds himself in unfamiliar territory, 14 points adrift of an unbeaten Liverpool and further from the top of the table than he has been with any of his previous sides.
No-one knows better than the 48-year-old himself that his Manchester City team is in need of regeneration. The manager knows exactly what is happening with his side and what he needs to do.
Rumours about his future abound. So what is the truth about his current situation, what are his plans for the future and what, if anything, has gone wrong?
Is this the beginning of the end for Guardiola at City?
Contrary to rumours, my understanding is Guardiola's desire to succeed with City remains undimmed. In fact, if anything he is more obsessed and determined than ever.
City believe their manager will be at the club until the end of next season - when his contract is up - and they are working hard on planning for the 2020-21 campaign already.
People around Guardiola say he is tired but the notion that he is at the end of his tether is something that all those close to him strenuously deny.
He still has creative disputes with his assistants, the hunger is still obvious and he very much wants to turn this situation around. But that is a long way from saying he will renew his contract. City are preparing for life without him and hope - but do not expect - he will want a new deal.
Nobody near Guardiola thinks he would take the decision to walk away in the summer but club sources have confirmed that reports he has a release clause are accurate - even though he has denied that is the case.
That said, only one person knows what is next for him. Guardiola is and always has been his own man.
On a personal level his daughter and wife Cristina now split their week between Manchester and Barcelona, where she has business interests, while their two sons are completing studies in England. The small distance of four days apart is seen as having improved the family's quality of life. After all, it is better that Pep is looking forward to seeing them than being constantly consumed by the next match.
The more immediate concern surrounding City's coaching staff actually relates to Mikel Arteta, Guardiola's assistant, whose departure is inevitable, sooner or later.
Everyone, including Guardiola, agrees that Arteta is more than ready to become number one at a top club, and there couldn't be a better time than now to join his former team Arsenal, bearing in mind their current fortunes. Guardiola has said he would like him to stay until the end of the season but I don't envisage him putting up too much of a fight should his number two be offered the top job at Emirates Stadium.
And what could be most interesting is who would replace Arteta. Three names spring immediately to mind.
Xabi Alonso has a similar profile to Arteta and is already a number one with Real Sociedad's B team. Also busy learning the coaching ropes is another Spanish midfield legend who might be very interested in taking on the job, Xavi Hernandez. Or perhaps Dutch former Arsenal player Giovanni van Bronckhorst. He is close to Guardiola's way of thinking, has been studying closely how it all works at City and has already been a winning manager at Feyenoord.
When Guardiola does decide to move on from Manchester, his next step will be fascinating.
He has won titles in Spain, Germany and England, so what about Italy? In Serie A, Antonio Conte looks well bedded in at Inter Milan, AC Milan are not the side they were and Juventus would probably be unwilling to change their style in the way Guardiola would almost certainly demand (and that desire to turn the style of a top historical club was already fulfilled at Bayern).
What about managing an international side like Italy? Or maybe Brazil, who have shown an interest in him in the past. Or let me throw a curve ball into the mix. After Phil Foden scored in City's 4-1 win at Dinamo Zagreb on Wednesday, Guardiola referenced English youngsters and said: "England have an incredible generation of young players for the next decade."
Having also overseen Raheem Sterling's rise into one of Europe's leading attackers, what post is more suitable for Guardiola than being the next England coach, when Gareth Southgate decides to call it a day? Now that really would be intriguing to witness.
Why are Man City so far behind this season?
City are aiming to become the first team in a decade to win three straight league titles, having amassed the two highest points tallies in Premier League history - 100 and 98 - in winning the league over the past two seasons.
But having lost four of their 16 league matches this campaign, they are as close to 13th-placed Burnley as they are to leaders Liverpool. Even if City were to win all of their remaining 22 games, they would 'only' take their total to 98.
Guardiola feels he knows exactly what he needs to do to address the problems his team are experiencing. He is, as always, searching for solutions. No-one analyses and dissects all aspects of every game in the forensic way he does.
The one reality about any Guardiola team is that little is left to chance with regards to preparation. It is rare for anything to happen by accident, but if it does and can be seen to be of potential benefit to the side, then it is worked on and perfected.
During a recent game, Guardiola noticed a reaction by the opposition, and his own team, to certain situations in midfield. Then he looked at previous games and realised that this "accident" had happened before.
So for their most recent league match at Burnley, a new tactic in midfield was put into practice, which left Burnley confronted with a different approach to the one they were expecting. City won 4-1, with one of their best performances of the season.
The search for new answers is Guardiola's biggest motivation. And when that kind of work pays off, it is what fills him with joy, what makes everything worthwhile. It is his ability to constantly find something new that makes his team even more unpredictable and ultimately what makes the difference.
The question so often posed is whether his team can break down opponents who sit deeper and deeper than the players have experienced before, to the point where the opposition centre forward is often marking City's holding midfielder. This places greater demands on City especially because their system relies on collective energy and thinking to create the synergy needed to function effectively. In essence, City need everything to more or less work for them to be dominating.
The good news for them is they are conceding the fewest amount of chances in the Premier League. The flip side of that coin is that when teams do get into their box, City rank among the worst teams in the league for stopping them scoring. Rivals don't often get close to Ederson's goal, but when they do, they often tend to score.
More good news is that no-one in the league creates more chances than City and in fact they are creating more goalscoring opportunities than last season. But there is a world of difference between creating chances and scoring them. Sterling, so efficient in the past, now needs four chances to convert one into a goal, and you can say that of just about everyone, including Gabriel Jesus, and both Bernardo and David Silva.
Against Liverpool at Anfield, City lost 3-1. They had seven chances and scored one, while Liverpool scored three from the five chances they had. Against Newcastle they had three clear chances and wasted all three, while Sterling had a golden chance to win it at the death only for his shot to hit the goalkeeper's legs.
On so many occasions this season, the last action, the last decision, be it wastefulness in attack or absent-mindedness in defence, is costing City dear.
A summer of change ahead?
One of the most important things Guardiola has learned from his managerial career is the lesson he was taught early on by his mentor Johan Cruyff, who would always remind him that winning on top of winning is one of the hardest things to achieve in football.
Before the defeat by Manchester United, the thought was simply to take it game by game, amass as many victories as possible and hope Liverpool slip up.
City certainly aren't about to give up the chase but despite constantly reminding everyone that there are still 66 points up for grabs, Guardiola must surely feel in his heart that his route to the title has never looked this difficult.
It has not helped that he has suffered serious setbacks with his squad for varying reasons.
Left-back Benjamin Mendy is a shadow of the player he was prior to the two cruciate injuries he suffered and looks like he is coming to the end of the road, certainly at the highest level. With Mendy it is not just a physical thing, however. Angelino and Oleksandr Zinchenko understand they have to come inside on occasion in order to create midfield superiority, while Mendy is uncomfortable doing that.
That partly explained the first half an hour against Chelsea, when the visitors enjoyed so much superiority. Kyle Walker does it but Mendy struggles with the idea. Maybe it is a lack of confidence because he probably doesn't see himself at the level that he used to operate at.
Leroy Sane's injury has not been helpful either, while the biggest blow has been the absence of Aymeric Laporte - in general defensive play, at set-pieces and in the build-up from the back.
Rodri is adapting well to the demands placed on him by his new club and there have been moments when he has been excellent. He has a fantastic physique and an excellent footballing brain, and little by little he is getting better. Nobody doubts he will be crucial for the side.
The problem Guardiola will always have when trying to rejuvenate his squad is that many potential signings might not understand the nature of what is required or struggle to convert themselves into the sort of player he is looking for.
That is precisely why those he likes to bring in are young and malleable. Older players can come in with set ideas and are not always willing to step out of their comfort zone. Going from playing for yourself at one club to having to play in an ultra-demanding collective is a huge leap. It also explains why not all new arrivals at City have been unqualified successes.
One player that will definitely not be there next season is David Silva, while Sane and Nicolas Otamendi are also likely to be packing their bags. And they will not be the only ones.
Fundamentally what Guardiola needs more than anything is four key starting players or, at the very least, three and one backup to the first team. That is the minimum requirement if the manager is to keep everyone on their toes.
Harry Maguire would have gone a long way to solving his central defensive dilemma and my understanding is that it very nearly happened. Everything was sorted with Maguire and he wanted to join, but negotiations broke down because City could not go higher than the £70m they offered to Leicester. They were certainly never going to match the £82m that Manchester United eventually paid.
Guardiola's ability to make the right signings (and the club's, as he mostly suggests positions, profiles and chooses a list offered by director of football Txiki Beguiristain) should help his side return to compete on all fronts. Recycling is something Guardiola did not have to do (or chose not to do) at Barcelona and Bayern.
So what is coming next, if he decides to stay until the end of his contract, would also be new territory for him.