The lack of Manchester City is our gain
Pep Guardiola may be one of the greatest architects of elite teams the sport has ever seen, but his very particular projects always require the best materials to sustain themselves. Fortunately, Manchester City offers him an almost unlimited budget to buy coins. This has allowed the club to have a workforce close to perfection. At almost every position, Guardiola has one and sometimes even two or three hand-picked players capable of giving his tactical setup exactly what he needs. There remains one glaring exception to this, however, a crucial position in which City lack even a single big natural option, preventing Guardiola from building his team’s top tier somewhere near the clouds. It’s this limitation that defines Man City‘s season, and it’s also what makes the club’s campaign so cool.
The defect I am referring to is at the centre-forward. The pursuit of a world-class goalscorer has long been a concern for City management, dating back to the later stages of Sergio Agüero’s bounty. This search reached its most urgent point during the summer, when Agüero left the club. Looking to replace the Argentine as the club’s chief finisher, City were aiming high, tackling marquee killers Harry Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo. In the end, City failed on both counts, and rather than settle for a cheaper replacement, the club decided to hold out for something better in the future. In the meantime, they had to make do with what they had.
With only one natural striker (Gabriel Jesus, who has played more as a winger this season) in the squad, Guardiola has had to improvise this season. His solution was to rotate his ungodly number of attacking midfield types into the centre-forward position. The result isn’t perfect, but it’s still fantastic.
Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez and Ferran Torres have spent time moonlighting as the sharp tip of City’s spear this season, each interpreting the position in different ways. Torres, before picking up an injury and then leaving for Barcelona in the winter transfer window, proved the most orthodox striker of the lot, giving up with centre-backs and running errands behind like a born poacher. Bernardo was the least attacking, nominally starting high and central but spending the vast majority of his time wandering elsewhere. (Although City’s makeshift forwards are all often referred to as ‘false 9s’ from playing out of position, Bernardo is the only one to really play the role.) The ever-versatile Foden was the most complete option and the more regularly used at the post. , further supporting the idea that his impending superstar will soon come, no matter which of his various positions he decides to specialize in. and, more importantly, score real goals to turn that dominance into victories.
Man City’s FA Cup win over Southampton at the weekend was a good demonstration of what the Sky Blues’ untraditional strategy looked like in action. On the one hand, City finished the game in a comfortable position. City’s players scored all five of the game – putting four past Southampton keeper Fraser Forster but also providing the Saints with an own goal at the other end – in a game that always looked like a win of City in the making. On the other hand, for the first hour City struggled to convert the chances they regularly created, partly due to the lack of a dead-eyed finisher in the lead.
Sterling opened the scoring in the 12th minute, but between that strike, Laporte’s own goal equalizing just before half-time and Kevin De Bruyne’s 62nd-minute penalty, City struggled to show their mastery of the game on the scoreboard. Grealish started the game at centre-forward. Unsurprisingly, almost all of his good work has come outside the penalty area, where he’s more used to playing. Even still, City managed to score those two goals to win and then restore the lead, after which substitutes Foden and Mahrez stepped in to turn what had been a close game into a laugh at the final whistle.
This has also been the case in the Premier League. City’s 68 goals are just behind Liverpool‘s 75. While the Reds’ goals have been centralized among their top three goalscorers (Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota and Sadio Mané have combined for 45 goals, 60% of the team’s overall numbers), City’s are far more distributed (no Citizen has not scored more than 10 goals individually). Without a single goalscoring specialist, City had to rely on contributions from a host of players capable of scoring but not particularly gifted. That’s part of what makes the club’s season so impressive, their ability to create a goalscoring monster out of shadows and teamwork. It’s also what makes the team vulnerable – if City were to lose the league title to Liverpool it would largely come down to the inability of this monster from the shadows to hit their opponents with the same impact as a physical monster could do it.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and creativity is defined as much by limitation as by freedom. The need for goals has led Guardiola and City’s non-attacking strikers to get creative with their plans and talents. I hope Erling Haaland becomes a Manc this summer and gives the club a truly perfect roster, if only to see how perfect ‘perfection’ really is. But I’m also happy that they had to manage this year without Kane or Ronaldo or anyone else who could make it easier and more direct to win titles. The work has undoubtedly been harder, but it’s worth it.