The day after a solid win over Bournemouth in which the blues held Bournemouth to 0 shots and enjoyed 82% possession, Joe Butterfield has a look back on the main talking points from the game.
Foden has been shafted
After a few weeks of what I will diplomatically call patchy form from David Silva, including a couple of recent anonymous performances against West Ham and Chelsea, along with the injury to Fernandinho which has pushed Gündogan back into the number 6 position, if this was Football Manager this would be the moment where you would call upon your 18-year-old wonderkid.
Pep has assured us all that Phil Foden is ready for the first team and is looked upon in the same regard as the other midfielders in the squad. Yes, Foden has played in the Carabao Cup (though obviously played no part in the final) and has featured in the FA Cup, whilst making numerous appearances off the bench in the league throughout the season, however he’s yet to get his elusive Premier League start despite spending two years training with the first team squad, which suggests he probably isn’t actually looked upon in the same regard at all.
Midweek was the perfect time to play him with Silva being out of form and Bernardo needing a rest. Failing that, another poor performance from Silva on Wednesday would have surely boosted Foden’s chances of getting a start against Bournemouth. But no, it’s clear that there is a very real hierarchy in Pep’s squad and he won’t be used for more than 20-30 minutes in a Premier League game unless there is absolutely no alternative.
So when Kevin De Bruyne went off injured, it would be logical to assume that Foden would replace him against a team as open as Bournemouth, right?
Riyad Mahrez took his place and, although he went on to score the winning goal, his recent form does absolutely nothing to suggest that he was an obvious choice ahead of Foden, especially with Bernardo looking quite lively on the right-hand side already. Instead, the game passed Foden by as he failed to get onto the pitch and I’m beginning to get a bit sick of it.
I’m by no means calling for Foden to become a first-team regular or be involved in the biggest games of the season. All I’m asking is that he starts the occasional Premier League game. If we have a midfielder who is clearly out of form, as David Silva is, then use the resources at your disposal. Has there been a game that Foden has started where he’s looked out of place or like he isn’t ready to start a Premier League game?
There’s obviously no risk of Foden leaving the club any time soon and I know this is incredibly impatient. Next season he’ll be 19. In five years he’ll be 24. In 10 years he’ll be 28 years old, still in his prime with 5 years left at top level football. I’m well aware that it’s incredibly premature to suggest that there’s an issue with him not starting games at the age of 18. However, it’s quickly reaching the point where I think he’s legitimately a better option than David Silva if we’re going off the last month or two, or at the very least he deserves the opportunity to prove himself.
He can come off the bench for 15-20 minutes and look as good as he likes. It appears that he’s never going to be given a Premier League start while the league is as tight as it is.
Manchester City do a lot of crosses
As the first half unfolded, I felt like there was a familiar pattern evolving. City would get the ball out wide, play some short passes between their wide players, get the ball to Bernardo, Kev or Zinchenko, hit a cross into the box, repeat.
I noilticed a similar pattern against West Ham on Wednesday and it’s getting frustrating to watch. Sure, the low, hard crosses which can pick out somebody in the box are useful, if anything my preferred method of getting at the opposition is getting to the byline and fizzing one in to the edge of the six yard box. What is less encouraging, however, is watching players float high crosses into the box against 6ft-plus centre backs, trying to find the head of definitely-not-6ft Sergio Aguero.
Aguero has scored a lot of headers in his time and it’s not to say that he isn’t capable of beating a defender in the air, but if he does it’s usually either the fault of a centre-back or a ridiculously perfect cross which falls perfectly for him. When 10-15 of these crosses, or any other kinds of crosses, don’t work, it may be worth rethinking the strategy.
It’s become too frequent an occurrence to be the players making the decision at this point and maybe Pep has spotted that West Ham and Bournemouth are particularly susceptible to crosses. Either way, it’s only resulted in hitting the post once in the last two games. Buy Edin Dzeko back (please) or maybe ease off on the high balls into the box.
Kev is no longer indestructible
So, for the third time this season, Kev went off with an injury. This time a fairly routine pass led to him immediately going to ground having felt something go. He indicated to his team-mates that it was his hamstring which he felt and knew he had to immediately come off.
In the seasons prior to this one it has almost felt like Kev is indestructible. I remember him going down with a ligament injury in his first season, in the League Cup semi-final against Everton, and fearing he’d be out for months, only for him to end up back on the pitch within a month. Last season he came back from having his ankle assaulted by Jason Puncheon and started the next game only a few days later. He’d had his ankles stamped on, legs studded, everything. Nothing could take him down.
This season has been another story entirely. Two ligament injuries following each other in quick succession have led to a bit of a slow season for the Belgian as he’s slowly been regaining his form. The game-on-game improvements have been noticeable as he’s starting to find his defence-splitting rhythm once more.
Now he’s done his hamstring, presumably due to having played a lot of games in quick succession after so much time away from the pitch. Many will point to the number of games he’s played and perhaps blame Guardiola for not giving him rests when it’s been possible to do so, however even De Bruyne himself has said he wants to play as often as possible and has noted that it’s helped him regain his form and recover.
However, when you add it to Laporte and Fernandinho, that’s now three of our most important players in the spine of the team that have suffered muscle injuries in the space of a week and it’s impossible to look past their playing time as a reason for this. They’re the three players in the squad who are virtually never rotated if they’re available despite there having been ample opportunity to do so (Fernandinho playing against Newport immediately comes to mind).
De Bruyne insists that he’s alright, though it wouldn’t be the first time a player has understated his injury before being sidelined for a month. Still, with an international break on the horizon, this may not be the worst time in the world to find yourself injured for a few weeks.
A turning point for Mahrez?
As Riyad Mahrez took the place of Kevin De Bruyne, I fist-pumped in my living room. My favourite player, a man who had proved time and time again that he’s capable of putting in big, important performances when it really matters, was ready to step into the place of Kev. He’ll win this for us, I thought to myself, he’s going to take our performance to another level.
I am, of course, lying. I rolled my eyes as soon as I saw him rise from the bench, partially due to annoyance that it wasn’t Foden but mostly because of how outright dreadful Mahrez has been since November, including a performance against West Ham which, whilst showing promising signs, still offered little.
He was much more lively against West Ham, he certainly looked much more likely to make something happen than he has previously, I’ll admit I was even impressed with him in the first ten minutes of the game. However, it quickly became apparent that nothing he tried was going to come off, whether it was a mistimed run from himself, a mistimed pass from a team-mate or the ball getting away from him. I felt bad for him but I won’t pretend Pep wasn’t right to hook him as quickly into the second half as he did.
A noticeable part of his game in his recent slump is that he just doesn’t look confident, which is being exacerbated by his attempts to overcompensate and trying to get the spectacular goal he thinks he now needs to win over both his manager and the fans. It’s almost becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point.
Against Bournemouth he finally got a goal in an important moment, proving me wrong and proving the entire population of Algeria right. His performance was fine on the whole, nothing more. In the midst of a City performance which reduced Bournemouth to 18% possession and 0 shots, it’s difficult to really have a terrible game. Ultimately he got the goal which decided the game, he even did it with his right foot, which means it should probably count for double.
Hopefully, the goal will give him more confidence which, with an injury to Kev, may be necessary. If Bernardo is forced into the middle then Mahrez will be needed in the coming weeks and we need the Mahrez of October/November, not the Mahrez of January/February.
The pressure is on
City are now top of the table with a game in hand and, by the end of today, this could well be irrelevant. However, with a Merseyside Derby looming, this is a real test of Liverpool’s bottle. Personally, I think they’ll overcome Everton painfully easily but as long as we’re hot on their heels (or a step ahead of them in this case), there’s always a chance that they could slip up.
City have been in this position before with ten games to play and have come out victorious. Liverpool haven’t and this could prove to be a vital psychological advantage for the blues. Sure, City aren’t winning pretty at the moment but even with Liverpool’s recent spanking of Watford, they’ve still got 3 draws out of their last 5 games.
City are grinding out wins when it’s necessary, something which champions are more than capable of doing. Some pundits would tell you that this is what Liverpool have been doing for most of the season, but if the norm is a one or two goal advantage and then the screw is tightened then you’re left with little room to slip up. Three draws in their last five would tell you that maybe this pressure is already getting to them but the longer City can keep them pinned against the ropes, the better.
If it comes down to the last five games of the season needing to be won, I’d back City to do that over Liverpool every time.
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