It was a rare no-lose scenario for Manchester City in the second leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final away at Burton Albion on Wednesday night. Following a riotous 9-0 demolition at the Etihad, Pep Guardiola no doubt instructed his squad to pay their due respects to Nigel Clough’s Brewers, fielding an eclectic mix of youth, rotation and recuperating players in order to see out the tie.
With Sergio Agüero’s goal the only difference between the two sides, the rest of the game was a surprisingly hard-fought affair in the face of some hearty performances and slippy patches of turf down in Staffordshire.
Without further ado, here are the biggest talking points as City made sure of their third Wembley final in four years…
The trials and tribulations of Riyad Mahrez
In wake of reports suggesting his frustration at a lack of game time, a start against Burton provided Riyad Mahrez with the perfect opportunity to shine. Having been left out of the squad against a manager-less Huddersfield Town on Sunday, the Algerian had good reason to be concerned about his chances, perhaps expecting more respect from his status as City’s club record signing.
However, as similar treatments of Leroy Sané and Bernardo Silva have proven, a regular place in Pep Guardiola’s starting line-up is earned on merit, not market value. Guardiola may have been hoping that leaving Mahrez out against the Terriers would have given the winger a clear warning of that fact, yet the Algerian’s performance bore no signs of a player on message.
Instead, errant shots and often selfish passages of play would have only further aggravated City fans who are losing hope of seeing the player who was so devastating during his time at Leicester City. Like Sané, Mahrez has a phenomenal amount of individual talent, yet can often become too self-involved when better opportunities present themselves for teammates around him.
If the Algerian is to rediscover the form that has made him such a star name, then he should look no further than Sané. Not only has the German winger dedicated himself to the team after some tough love from Guardiola, but also managed to find the best of both worlds for City, utilising natural gifts with team tactics to be more devastating than ever before.
Your move, Riyad.
Youth takes the stage
Given how much was made of the supposed ‘disrespect’ of Burton in putting them to the sword at the Etihad, many will have been eyeing Guardiola’s team selection with bated breath to see how he looked to appease both City-loving fans and City-scathing journalists.
Would it be a record aggregate thrashing for the prestigious League One side, cementing City’s place as war-mongering tyrants? Or would Guardiola go for the ultimate disgrace, fielding a horde of soon-to-be-sold youth products who would sooner campaign for foreign moves than lower themselves to the standards of the English Football League?
In the end, that bald noggin would shine with a fateful glimmer as Pep engineered a delicate balance of trusted youth with reliable experience. However, rather than be chauffeured through the match by their older teammates, it was to be City’s young talents who would leave the field having commanded proceedings, with rising stars Eric Garcia and Aro Muric leading the way.
Particularly significant in a day where transfer attentions have supposedly turned to Ajax defensive sensation Matthijs de Ligt, Eric Garcia looked nothing short of top quality when charged with marshalling City’s backline. Indeed, amongst a defence that included Brazilian international Danilo and somewhat regular left back Oleks Zinchenko, it was notable that Garcia looked the most accomplished of all, even managing to retain his composure in the midst of few impressions of Steven Gerrard on ice.
With Guardiola known to be considering the next move for his young compatriot, Garcia’s mature performance against Burton will only have strengthened his case to remain involved with the first team. I haven’t seen more innate leadership since the early days of Vincent Kompany! He rightly walked down the tunnel as our Man of the Match.
KDB = DLP?
Perhaps the most intriguing detail to come out of Guardiola’s pre-match press conference was the news that somebody would be played out of position against come the match at the Pirelli Stadium. With the tie pretty much won, the primary assumption was that a player would step into a different role to accommodate for squad rotation, keeping City’s premium talents rested and ready for the FA Cup fixture against Burnley on Saturday.
But, ever the tactician, Pep Guardiola had other ideas. In the same breath in that press conference, City’s manager had confirmed that Kevin De Bruyne would be starting in the second leg. Little did we know that both of his answers would be so interlinked – it was the Belgian Da Vinci who would ply his artistry to a deeper-lying role at the base of midfield. And of course, rather than be restricted by his new position, it was almost inevitable that it would be he who played the decisive ball to initiate the move for City’s solitary goal.
Though not a match performance likely to turn any heads, De Bruyne’s maiden appearance as a deep-lying playmaker may hold a greater significance to City’s plans going forward. Not only does the Belgian’s range of passing allow him to occupy a similar role to recent transfer targets Jorginho and Frenkie de Jong, conducting play as a metronome, it also indicates that Guardiola has faith in his abilities to operate across the pitch. Though unlikely to take the baton from Fernandinho as City’s primary defensive midfielder, it goes to show that City can yet evolve tactically, giving a greater variety to their play and options going forward.
Mendy on the mend (and not around the bend)
Approaching two seasons in Manchester, it was almost jaw-dropping to hear the commentators introduce Benjamin Mendy to the game as making his only his 21st appearance for City. Now on the other side of his second major knee ligament injury, the exuberant Frenchman will no doubt have been ecstatic to have earned his first minutes since November for Guardiola’s side.
Nevertheless, though it is a welcome sight for City to play with a genuine left back once again, Mendy’s return one riddled with uncertainties. Should he return to the imperious form that he is capable of marauding down the left flank, then it is an undoubted benefit for City to have another string to their bow as they bear down on the business end of the season still in four competitions.
Likewise however, Mendy’s sheer presence on the left leaves much to be desired, as he is yet to show he is capable of playing in tandem with lightning Leroy Sané, who has arguably been City’s best player in recent weeks. Hope is not lost yet that a team can be still be salvaged where both Frenchman and German play on the same pitch, but efforts should be firmly directed toward making such an option viable and fast. Should defensive solidity take priority over attacking prowess, then City staff and fans alike should hope that it involves both players, as man-for-man, City’s best starting line-up must surely be one that accommodates both players.
For now though, it can only be a positive for now that one more player is available to Guardiola. The Frenchman looked suitably rusty for someone so lacking in match fitness and practice during his minutes against Burton, but if City are to operate at full-throttle in the coming months, then they will need all the help they can get.
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