Pep Guardiola oils up his attacking machine
Man City v Everton, Ethiad Stadium, 8pm - Pep's first test of new season
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola
For the largest embarrassment of attacking riches in the Premier League’s 25-year history, look no further than Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. At the Etihad Stadium for tonight’s match with Everton, the manager can choose from Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sané, Bernardo Silva, Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Yaya Touré, Ilkay Gündogan and Sergio Agüero.
After the 2-0 victory in their opening game at Brighton & Hove Albion, Guardiola also mentioned Phil Foden, a 17-year-old who impressed in pre-season and was an unused substitute. If Guardiola’s pursuit of Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez proves successful he will have a full XI at his disposal to fill a maximum of five places, if a three-centre-back system is used.
It means an unwanted place on the bench again beckons for star names accustomed to a starter’s jersey when Everton visit. At the Amex Stadium, Sterling, Sané and Touré sat it out with Foden. But to select five forward-minded players out of the possible seven substitutes points to Guardiola’s priorities and the challenge he faces in accommodating them all.
Against Brighton, Guardiola’s solution was to squeeze an extra striker into an untypical 3-5-2 formation. For a coach whose questioning of centre-forwards moved him to deploy false No9s at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, choosing a front two in Jesus and Agüero was an intriguing move. It also showed those who believe Guardiola to be an inflexible strategist that he can make tactical adjustments so long as they serve his vision of a relentless attacking machine.
In this second season of Guardiola’s tenure City simply must compete seriously for the Premier League. If he cannot claim that trophy he will at least need to win a cup after the lack of silverware last season, which featured a disappointing third place finish and a last 16 exit from the Champions League.
For this quest Guardiola has used the transfer window to add a new first-choice goalkeeper, Ederson; three defenders Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo; and bolster his attack options with the £43.6m acquisition of Bernardo Silva from Monaco. De Bruyne is one of Guardiola’s few untouchables, alongside David Silva. After the Brighton match De Bruyne pointed to City’s long campaign that could number “60-65 matches” and the need for strength in depth.
Too much depth?
But how much depth is too much? Sterling is one whose City career appears in the balance after his failure to convince Guardiola in 2016-17. Sané impressed more but may still have a fight to re-establish himself with Silva’s arrival from Monaco.
Asked if there can be too much competition Guardiola admitted it could become a headache: “I don’t know. Hopefully, they can understand that. Hopefully they will understand that at the big clubs you cannot have 11 players [in attack], so they have to compete with each other. For example, the last game in Brighton, Leroy didn’t play from the beginning, it was a key point and I changed our dynamic a little bit in front.
“And, for example, Raz [Raheem Sterling] when he played minutes [coming on for the last 12] he played good as well. So in the Premier League the people who are 12, 13, 14 and play in the game, they are so important. When the game is in the last 15 or 20 minutes, the opponent is tired and we’ve moved them [around] during the game, we can put in dynamic players like Bernardo Silva, Raz or Sané. In another game maybe it’s Sergio [Agüero] or Gabriel [Jesus]. So it’s a point where we can win games in the last minutes.”
An indicator that Sané and Sterling face a struggle as potential fall guys came in last April’s draw at Middlesbrough. Guardiola fielded the same Agüero-Jesus pairing as at Brighton in a 3-4-1-2 with which City struggled to a 2-2 draw. Explaining why neither had started, Guardiola said: “[Sané and Sterling] are wingers and we have to help them with the full-backs in that position to close the crosses and they are not able to do that over 90 minutes, especially Raheem.”
Guardiola wants flexibility, so will relish being able to switch between 3-5-2, 3-4-1-2, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. As against Brighton, Guardiola’s team brightened at the Riverside following shrewd utilisation of Sterling and Sané, who each came on just after half-time.
The key to keeping all of his attackers content will be success. Excluded players feel less inclined to rock the boat if the side is winning. Team spirit kicks in and there is little reason to knock on the manager’s door and claim fortunes can be reversed if the disgruntled player is picked.
Guardiola said: “We have many strikers, but we need this. We have four competitions and a lot of games. If we would play one game a week, we would have less, not too many players. But with the competitions, we need all of them.”
City are again title favourites, which Guardiola shrugged off. “It’s the same last season,” he said. “So [at Bayern Munich] I won three Bundesligas in a row, two cups, reached three semi-finals of the Champions League - I felt that [being favourites] in Munich. I know I can handle it. I have to live with it. So when the journalists say: ‘You are the favourite,’ I accept that. When I lose and they say: ‘You are not favourite,’ I accept it too.”
Yet Guardiola insisted he will never change his ethos as he prepares a side aimed at overwhelming Everton. “We just have to try to win and we’re going to see at the end of the season,” he said. “If we win, people will say nice words but, if we don’t win, people will say he’s not able to train in the Premier League. It’s simple like that.”
More complicated will be keeping all his top players on-message. Overcome that challenge and City could well be crowned champions in May. Guardian service