Has Fabian Delph been given a career lifeline at Manchester City under Pep Guardiola?
Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, Gabriel Jesus, Fabian Delph – spot the anomaly.
If you asked 100 people to come up with their strongest Manchester City line-up from the current crop of players it can almost be assured that Delph wouldn’t feature in many – if any – of the sides.
The 27-year-old has been facing fierce competition for midfield spots since his surprise arrival from Aston Villa back in 2015 and it hasn’t got any easier this season after Pep Guardiola’s summer spree.
Bernardo Silva was added to Manchester City’s central midfield options in a £43 million move just weeks after the end of last season, meaning that Delph is now battling with the former Monaco man, De Bruyne, Silva, Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan for just three starting positions.
And, in somewhat predictable style, the former England international was left on the side-lines for City’s first five Premier League matches as the destructive duo of Silva and De Bruyne caused chaos.
He has failed to make a true stamp for first-team football in recent seasons – admittedly partly due to injury problems – and in Guardiola’s debut season he made just seven Premier League appearances.
Yet he has been handed the most unexpected reprieve in recent weeks, being utilised in a left-wing back role for City’s past three matches as a result of an untimely injury to first-choice man Benjamin Mendy.
The £50 million summer signing from Monaco had proven to be a revelation in his first few games since making the move from France, giving City a new dimension in attack with his natural wing-back play.
However, an injury picked up during the 5-0 win over Crystal Palace at the weekend has proven to be a worse knock than first thought and, speaking after the Shakhtar Donetsk victory on Wednesday evening, manager Pep Guardiola expressed his fears the 23-year-old could face a ‘long spell’ out on the side-lines.
Speaking to Sky Sports post-match, the Spaniard confessed:
“He is travelling to Barcelona and we are going to see what he has. Our first impression is that it will it be a little long, longer than we expected which is unfortunate. But I am pretty sure it will be longer than we would like. The way we want to play, we will miss him a lot. He is a unique player, the joy he gives on and off the pitch. I think it is a major setback.”
In Mendy’s five appearances the Blues have only conceded once – scoring 22 goals at the other end – on their way to winning all five games, and it is fair to say that he’ll prove to be a big miss at the Etihad.
Guardiola has shown the flexibility of his squad in the past two matches by utilising Delph in a defensive position, and he went on to say in his interview that ‘we have alternatives’ in the squad.
Whilst the 27-year-old has made a name for himself as a box-to-box midfielder, he is no stranger to playing on the left side of defence, and he actually played against his current side there back in 2011.
On that occasion, he was one of few players to come out of Aston Villa’s FA Cup fifth-round exit able to hold his head high, and despite the eventual 3-0 score-line he adapted well to the make-shift role.
Reflecting on his previous experiment in defence to the Manchester Evening News, and talking about his potential return to that role for Manchester City this season, Delph recently said:
“I’ve played left back before, not many times, under Gerard Houllier when I was a young kid of 20 or 21. If I can help the team I am happy. I am a team player – if we win I go home happy.
“All the players know the system of how the manager wants us to play. I have played left-back in training, and at Aston Villa, and as a young guy coming through at Leeds. I’m not a left-back but I feel can do a job there, but there are others in the team who can do a job at left-back as well.
“Leroy can play there as well, but if I’m selected you will get nothing less than 100 per cent and if I’m not selected I’ll be on the bench screaming and shouting, pushing the lads on to do well.”
It is certainly not a strange move by Guardiola to try him there, as for the majority of the last Premier League campaign defensive midfielder Fernandinho was utilised in a make-shift right-back position.
But, whilst it will no doubt be intended as a short-term fix whilst Mendy rehabilitates from his latest injury set-back, Manchester City’s top-six rivals have shown in recent years that these sorts of experimental measures can quickly develop into something much more beneficial in the long-term.
Antonio Conte has converted former midfielder Victor Moses into a fully-fledged wing-back, Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia has been a revelation since his transformation into a right-back whilst James Milner – so often a dependable midfielder – played last season as a left-back for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
It seems that the modern game of football is creating more and more of these experiments, with a number of them working better than expected, and this new role could be the making of Delph now.
He has made an early claim for a regular starting berth with his displays against Palace and Shakhtar Donetsk over the past week, with the England international man-of-the-match against the Ukrainian champions on Tuesday night after a display full of attacking nous and good old-fashioned discipline.
He managed to complete 90% of his 62 passes in an incredibly end-to-end encounter, showing he can have an impact going forward by being successful with four take-ons and making three chances.
His natural defensive instincts as a central midfielder stand him in good stead when facing the opposition, and against Shakhtar he made two key tackles, four interceptions and three clearances.
Tougher tests will undoubtedly come, starting with the visit to Stamford Bridge on Saturday to face Premier League champions Chelsea, but his promising start will give him confidence moving forward.
What is more remarkable about Delph’s turnaround in fortunes though is that there was a point over the summer where he looked destined to leave, with a number of Premier League rivals pursuing him.
The Telegraph reported in the midst of the transfer window that Stoke City were almost nailed on contenders for the signing of Delph, set to beat off the competition from West Brom and Newcastle.
The Potters had already secured the services of Darren Fletcher from West Brom and they looked towards Delph to add more experience and steel to their midfield, with a guarantee of more regular first-team action than he was getting at the Etihad, but the 27-year-old had a late change of heart.
The Stoke Sentinel reported on deadline day that he had instead decided to fight for a role in the Manchester City side and – to his credit – that is something that Delph has already managed to do.
Speaking to the Manchester Evening News over the past week about the interest in him from rival clubs over the summer, Delph said:
“There was talk of me going, but I’m here and happy, and as long as I can contribute I will stay happy. No player would ever want to leave a club like this. If you do leave the club it’s because your services are no longer required.
“That wasn’t the case for me – I wasn’t being pushed out of the door, and I’m so happy to be here and contributing.”
It is this final statement that has arguably been the foundation of Delph’s recent revival, with the fact that he wasn’t ‘pushed out of the door’ by Guardiola or the Manchester City hierarchy during the summer inherently suggesting that the Spaniard sees him as an important part of his ongoing plans at the club.
If there was ever a second that Delph was deemed surplus to requirements in Manchester he would have been straight through the exit door in the same vein as Samir Nasri, Wilfried Bony and the rest.
Guardiola has clearly seen potential in the former Aston Villa man that is worth clinging on to, particularly as his team looks to challenge on all fronts, and Delph needs to take this second chance.