Pep Guardiola has problems. Not real world problems, but the
– I don’t know how I’m going to make these lineup decisions – kind of problems.
Over the past three seasons, Manchester City have become one of the deepest
teams in recent European football history. Stockpiling world class players at nearly
every position as the Premier League becomes the sporting world’s version of
the Cold War is obviously encouraged, but the fact remains, you can only play
eleven guys at once. Making tough lineup decisions is not a “dilemma” foreign
to Guardiola however, it tends to come with the territory when managing the
likes of City, Bayern Munich, and Barcelona. Regardless, determining which toys
to play with doesn’t get any easier the more often you do it, especially for a habitual
over-thinker like Guardiola.
With that preamble in mind, a thought exercise exploring the results of his selection process is one worth having, simply because there are so many viable versions of City's lineup. For the sake of this discussion, let’s consider an ideal world where there are no injuries and everyone is fully fit (I know this is unrealistic but pretending is fun, right?). So, with all his players at his disposal, which eleven does Guardiola ultimately land on?
The fascinating part about the answer to this question is that it will likely be different depending on when your reference frame is. Looking at two incredibly important fixtures that take place months apart will highlight this difference in conjunction with the fact that if you look just past the surface, City are a team in the midst of an exciting transition.
Our first reference frame takes place early in the campaign, specifically the August 17th match against Tottenham when Guardiola will undoubtedly need his strongest squad to survive the first challenge to their title defense. Our previously established clean bill of health needs to be updated slightly to adjust for Benjamin Mendy’s linguini-quality knee stability, which will already keep him out until late August/early September. The team sheet drops (fifteen minutes late because Pep can’t make up his mind) and lo and behold, the lineup is quite familiar to the default that closed out last season despite all that’s transpired this summer.
A midfield of David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, and Fernandinho – the group who comprised the best midfield in world football two years ago – are back together again after injuries kept them apart last season. The front three of Raheem Sterling, Sergio Aguero, and Bernardo Silva retain their automatic selections because they’re simply too good, regardless of the form Gabriel Jesus and Riyad Mahrez are in. Lastly, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Kyle Walker flank a backline with the presumptive centre back pairing of the present/future, Aymeric Laporte and John Stones.
It’s difficult to argue with any of these selections. Yet skepticism will always reign from the peanut gallery when players like Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri (on top of the attackers previously mentioned) are on the bench, more so when ones like Phil Foden struggle to even make the eighteen. Nevertheless, this lineup is my betting favourite to take the field at the Etihad in a few weeks time - a team loaded with world class talent but compassed by a foundation of club stalwarts.
The role of those veterans is a defining feature of the season, in large part because the most prominent piece of that long standing foundation is now playing/managing in Belgium. Vincent Kompany isn’t the first player from the pre-Guardiola core to leave the club, but the captain’s absence will be the most impactful. His departure is also a clear indication that the club is entering the crucial stages of a nearly-impossible task – maintaining greatness throughout the transition from an established core to its successor.
Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, and Yaya Toure represented the initial phase of the transition while Vincent Kompany will soon be joined by his remaining contemporaries to comprise the final stage. David Silva is confirmed to be in his final season in Manchester and this is also Fernandinho’s last under contract. Sergio Aguero's deal expires in 2021 and the odds of City committing to a 33-year old striker appear long despite his continuous improvement.
Moving on from this collection of players would cripple most
teams, yet an exceptional navigation of the transfer market and a blossoming
academy have given City a chance to maintain the dominance shown over the past
two seasons. The core of individuals ready to step into the developing
leadership void consists of players like Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, and
Bernardo Silva. It is a group that exists in the heart of their respective
primes, but must now accept the added burden of shepherding City as leaders.
Though there may never be another leader quite like Vincent Kompany, the next iteration of City legends appear ready to take on his mantle, the one which will be briefly held by Silva, Fernandino, and Aguero this season.
All of this leads us back to the lineup debate as we now jump to April 4th, when Manchester City host Liverpool as the title race goes down to the wire once again. Pep Guardiola continues to obsess over what his ideal lineup is, but a lot has changed since our last psychic attempt. The grueling wear and tear of another Premier League gauntlet haven’t allowed City’s trio of veterans to maintain their freshness, thus loosening their stranglehold on default selections in the starting lineup.
Meanwhile, nine months under Guardiola’s tutelage has transformed newcomer Rodri into a beast at the base of midfield where he becomes the preferred option sooner than expected. Kevin De Bruyne’s revenge tour is still going strong, but he’s now joined in the midfield by Bernardo Silva. This is due to equal parts his growing influence and Leroy Sane, who’s made a miraculous recovery and has gotten back to laying waste to every right back in England, making the thought of City letting him go to Bayern seem so silly in hindsight (going down with the “he’s staying” ship until we see something official!).
Sane’s reintroduction to the starting eleven has pushed Raheem Sterling to the right, but the wingers are now working combination play with Gabriel Jesus, who has turned the time share at striker slightly in his favor as he’s continued his form from an incredible Copa America throughout the season.
In defense, left centre back (Laporte) and right back (Walker) are unchanged but Pep’s instinct to put as many midfielders on the pitch as possible has returned in full force. The Fernandinho at centre back discussion has very much become a reality yet he manages to resist at the last minute, realising he's been overreacting to John Stones annual swoon. Modern medicine has also come to save the day as well. Benjamin Mendy has received bionic knee implants that give him the consistent health to maintain the flashes of brilliance we know he’s capable of and become the fullback we expected two years ago.
All in all, four changes from August to April doesn’t seem like a crazy number, but those two lineups have distinctly unique feels to them. The transition is most accurately exemplified by the breakthrough of Phil Foden, who's consistently making 30 minute appearances by the final stages of the season on top of having a religion named after him.
Whether or not any of this comes to fruition is anyone’s guess, so many things could happen to make the lineups offered above look foolish. Personally, it feels blasphemous to say there’s any way David Silva’s place in a team could be threatened, and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if the veterans are still going strong through April. Ultimately, the answer to these predictive questions could differ for every person reading this. But we can be certain this season will showcase multiple versions of Pep Guardiola’s first eleven – it'd be impossible not to with a roster as talented and deep as City's.
The fact that City will experience the most evident aspects of their transition this season adds a fascinating layer to the collection of lineup possibilities. As the old guard gradually concedes the spotlight to the new core, they will face the challenging task of filling the shoes of players who may have statues outside the Etihad one day. The scary part (for the rest of world football at least) is that they appear more than capable of succeeding on that mission, without a hint of vulnerability to City's dominance.
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