Something’s askew in Manchester City’s European thinking.
Their loss to Juventus last night - from a winning position no less - will re-spawn the argument about the over-hyping of English sides and generate a fresh-round of faux-introspection from the country as a whole.
There has evidently been a drop-off in the performances of Premier League sides in continental competition and the cheapening of the country’s co-efficient rating is very much a product of that, but that argument as a whole is too neat and too concise to explain Manchester City’s issues.
Their failure to make any sort of impression on the Champions League is not down to an illusory, Match of the Day-created perception and they haven’t fallen repeatedly in Europe purely because they’re not as talented as the domestic context makes them out to be.
City are two different sides: the one we see at weekends and the one who typically labour on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. One is genuinely outstanding, the other…not so much.
There are valid observations to be made about their structure and shape and about the folly of employing a two-man midfield against opponents who are very comfortable in possession, but they’re also being dulled by a difficult-to-describe set of intangibles.
They’re riddled with self-doubt in Europe.
Aside from the periodic tactical issues, they continue to radiate hesitation in the Champions League. Rather than being rooted in a deficiency of talent - it’s absurd to label players like Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Yaya Toure as constructs of hype or hyperbole - City’s troubles appear to stem from common self-belief. There are differences to their patterns of movement and the way they construct moves, but watching this team against a Juventus, a Real Madrid, or even a CSKA Moscow is frequently akin to watching someone edge across a minefield.
Nervous, tentative and full of fear.
Domestic football is stylistically different and City typically face a higher standard of opponent in the Champions League than they do at home. Logically, you would expect that to restrain them to a degree and for their marquee players to be less prominent than we’re used to them being.
And that’s true, but it’s also more than that - they don’t look like reduced versions of themselves, but completely different players altogether.
Discussing the Premier League’s inefficiencies and mocking insular English attitudes to Europe certainly makes for a good article, but - in City’s case - that might amount to over-analysis of a very simple problem. Similarly, grouping all Europe-participating sides into the same explanation is highly reductive, given how different - in a multitude of ways - each of those teams are.
Manchester United’s issues last night were different to those experienced by Chelsea last year. Arsenal were knocked out by Monaco and Liverpool fell at the group stage, but both eliminations stemmed from different problems.
There is no such thing as an English approach to Champions League football, there are only different English teams - all governed by individually different philosophies - failing to perform to their expected level. Those failures may have and may still be occurring simultaneously, but that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily linked or that they all possess a common deficiency.
There is no “English problem”, because these teams are not comprised of English players, managed by English coaches or selected by English fans’ sense of self.
In Manchester City’s case, there is - bafflingly, given their resources and glittering playing staff - an inferiority complex at work. They worry about what the opposition can do to them rather than the other way around and, as is shown week-on-week, they almost never approach domestic football in the same way. It’s almost - and this was clearly apparent last night - as if they defer to reputation rather than what’s actually in front of them.
On top of the genuine concerns about how these players are deployed, individually and collectively, there is a very real problem with their situational mindset. They are not aggressive enough, they do not play quick enough, and - most pertinently - they become instantly fragile at any hint of adversity. Those are not symptoms of being technically or physically out-matched, but of emotional fragility instead.
They are good enough to progress to the latter stages of the Champions League this year and at full-strength they really are capable of challenging the continent’s very best, but this stage-fright has to go before that happens.