Manchester City have earned four points from their first two games with a 2-0 away win at Brighton and Hove Albion and a 1-1 draw at home to Everton. While there are no major complaints this early in the season it is not quite the flying start by City that many were expecting.
With a number of very talented new players on the roster it is Raheem Sterling, now in his third year at the club, who has featured most prominently in the discussions around the start of the club’s campaign.
He scored the goal that rescued Pep Guardiola’s team from embarrassment at the hands of Everton and he was also brought on in the first game at Brighton, along with Sane and Bernardo Silva, when Guardiola’s 3-5-2 formation, featuring wing-backs and no wingers, was struggling to pick apart Brighton’s packed defence.
Both of City’s games have shown that despite the obvious talent, pace and usefulness of City’s full-backs in their current formation, the team still needs that extra dynamism and the dribbling ability possessed by Sterling, Sane and Bernardo to break teams down.
Of these three players during pre-season, and since the start of the regular season, it is Sterling who has demonstrated the most that his current form can be an asset to Guardiola, especially if City stick to their current formation.
After the game against Brighton, Guardiola stated that he did have some doubts about leaving Sterling out of his starting eleven. The Manchester Evening News quoted the Spaniard as saying: “The only doubt I had was Raz (Sterling), because Raz played amazing in pre-season through the middle.”
It is perhaps the last part of that quote that is the most telling of how Sterling could be utilised for maximum effect by the Spanish coach. Sterling has been playing mostly on the flanks during his time at Manchester City.
However, he has demonstrated his efficiency in the middle behind strikers, not just recently in City’s pre-season, but in the past for Liverpool and England. He can play from the right, in the middle and across to the left with deadly effect.
Over the past two weeks Manchester City’s forward pairing of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus has not proven to be the formidable attacking partnership many thought it would be.
One solution to this situation would be to take out one of the forwards and slot in Sterling behind a solitary striker, free to act as a number 10 marauding through the middle, left and right.
To have a clearer idea of how this role for the Jamaican-born midfielder could elevate City’s attacking game we need to go back a few years to when Sterling was utilized in a somewhat similar way very successfully by former Liverpool head coach Brendan Rodgers and ex-England manager Roy Hodgson.
In 2014, when Raheem Sterling played in his first World Cup tournament, his performance in a number 10 role against Italy garnered much praise from pundits and fans.
It was the pace for which he has become well-known and his dribbling ability that made him such a handful to deal with in central positions. He put in a memorable performance against the Italians, playing a key role in the build-up to a Daniel Sturridge goal in that game.
However, it was at Liverpool where he was given this very important responsibility, at a time when the talented player was still only a teenager. Brendan Rodgers alternated between using him as a winger and in central areas, where he sometimes functioned as a second striker or as a number 10.
The reasons for playing him, much like a trequartista, in this way are the same attributes that seem him often played as a winger. His remarkable dribbling pulls defenders and opens up spaces for other attackers. He is able to efficiently find spaces to run into and he is good at finding nearby attackers with his passing.
His pace, which is highly effective on the wing, is just as impactful in the middle. Guardiola’s teams often use fast players on the flanks to quickly cover distances in attack, but Sterling can do this with his runs through the middle, offering another speedy bridge from the midfield to forward areas.
This adds another dimension to the game and is another way of breaking down defences. At the moment, Yaya Toure is the player who on the odd occasion does this, making lumbering runs with the ball from the middle of the pitch into the final third.
With new and talented wing-backs now available to Guardiola, it makes sense to move Sterling into central areas when playing three at the back to create this additional option for penetration.
The pace on the flanks, combined with Sterling’s speed in the middle is exactly what City needs to speed up its overall attacking play, which is sometimes judged as too slow to unlock defences.
David Silva, who is known as Manchester City’s midfield magician, is pure quality with the ball at his feet, but does not have the speed that Sterling possesses.
The Englishman, in his new role, would not necessarily be a replacement for Silva, but could be an addition to the Spaniard. His presence centrally would also be a huge asset whenever City have the opportunity to counterattack through the middle of the pitch.
In Guardiola’s first year at City he had to contend with ageing full-backs, who had lost their pace. While he did sometimes used Sterling centrally, he was more needed as a winger due to City’s defensive problem.
Now this issue has been solved, through the recent addition of full-backs Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo, it is no surprise to see Guardiola presently experiencing a revelation regarding Sterling’s effectiveness in central areas, having used him in that position to good effect during pre-season.
Sterling’s goal and performance against Everton would have further hammered home the point.
There are a few strategies Guardiola could look to deploy, with regard to Raheem Sterling, in a formation with three defenders at the back. Replacing the second striker with the Englishman, as mentioned previously, is one option.
He could also use Sterling as a wing-backs, but that would reduce his presence in the forward attacking areas due to defensive responsibilities. Also, until Guardiola is comfortable that his central defenders are performing better than they did last year, this might not be the wisest of moves.
Another option would be to play a 3-4-3, in which he would play to the right of the striker, as usual, but with a license to move into central areas or even right across the final third. Whenever he does this, the right wing-back could fill the space Sterling vacates during City’s attacking moves.
Pep Guardiola’s recent rediscovery of Sterling’s effectiveness in central areas, brought about through the use of the current team formation, makes the young player as exciting a prospect as any new signing this season.
Raheem Sterling’s preferred position is in the middle and he could flourish with the greater freedom of a trequartista/number 10 role that would allow him to utilise his dangerous dribbling, pace and combination play. This is something that City have shown they still need, despite the new signings made over the summer.
Has Leroy Sané been wrongfully dropped from Germany’s World Cup squad?
The 22-year-old will not be featuring in Russia.
It was today announced that the 22-year-old – who made Joachim Löw’s original 27-man provisional team – did not make the official 23-man tournament squad. This arguably comes as the biggest shock of the squad announcements so far.
Sané made 40 appearances this season in all competitions for City, scoring 14 goals and gaining 19 assists along the way in what was undoubtedly the best season of his career.
His performances and statistics were enough to gain him the Premier League’s ‘Young Player of the Year Award’ for the 2017/18 season, further adding to the surprise of his absence from Löw’s World Cup squad.
Germany’s record in recent tournaments is as unquestionable as the strength and depth they have within their squad. To make the final cut of Löw’s World Cup team is a feat within itself and Sané deserved that accolade this summer.
Making the squad at the expense of Sané; Mesut Özil (Arsenal), Sebastian Rudy (Bayern Munich), Julian Draxler (PSG), Mario Gomez (Stuttgart) and Timo Werner (RB Leipzig).
Sané has similar attributes to these five players which is why it is difficult to comprehend any argument for the City wingers absence.
With the exception of Leipzig’s Werner, all of the above scored fewer goals last season than Sané and, on top of that, every player also had far fewer assists than the City winger, with the next closest to him being Arsenal’s Özil with 12 (seven behind).
In fact, if you add Rudy, Draxler and Gomez’s assists together (13), you’d still have six fewer than Sane’s. Combine all of the major statistics relevant to an attacking midfielder/forward’s role, Sané is ahead of every name on this list.
It obviously isn’t all about the statistics, however, and when you consider the calibre of attacking teammates Sané had to work with this season, it is understandable why his personal statistics are so high.
However, a World Cup squad should be the 23 best men at that time to represent their country.
When you consider the jaw-dropping football Manchester City played in this record breaking Premier League season – and Sané’s significant impact in that – surely it is inconceivable to think that he is not within the best 23 players of his nation.
It is difficult to second guess an international manager with the record of Joachim Löw. However, compile all of the statistical evidence with the eye test and it is difficult to understand how Leroy Sané will not be representing Germany in Russia this month.
Manuel Pellegrini’s poor China record should give West Ham cause for concern
The Chilean international looks set to join the Hammers.
With spells at some of the world’s most successful clubs, the Chilean is certainly an impressive acquisition for the Hammers.
Yet Pellegrini’s most recent coaching assignment has been nothing short of mediocre, a sign that should slightly worry West Ham supporters.
Pellegrini officially left Chinese Super League side Hebei China Fortune on Saturday, after just under two years at the club.
The Chilean was appointed in August 2016 and registered an unspectacular record at the club.
Pellegrini’s first season ended with Hebei in fourth position, yet the club missed out on AFC Champions League qualification by one place.
This year, the team has taken a dramatic step back in the opening months of the season.
Under Pellegrini’s management, Hebei China Fortune currently sit eighth out of the 16-team Chinese Super League.
The side has only picked up just 15 points from 11 matches to date, a disappointing return considering Pellegrini has talents such as Ezequiel Lavezzi, Hernanes, and Gervinho at his disposal.
As the Chinese Super League is a far less important and internationally relevant league than La Liga or the Premier League, Pellegrini can perhaps be forgiven for not taking his job as seriously as his past assignments at Malaga, Real Madrid, and Manchester City.
Yet, his Chinese struggles are worrying nonetheless, as ideally West Ham supporters would like to be acquiring the services of a manager who enjoyed success at his most recent club.
In all, the ex-Manchester City manager still has a Premier League title to his name, a fact that makes his recent tough spell in Asia less concerning.
Nevertheless, Manuel Pellegrini’s underwhelming time at Hebei China Fortune reveals that the manager still possesses flaws and should not be expected to work immediate wonders at West Ham.
Record-breaking Manchester City show Pep Guardiola was right not to change his philosophy
The Spaniard won his first Premier League title in swashbuckling style.
When Pep Guardiola was appointed as manager of Manchester City in the summer of 2016 it is fair to say that his arrival was met with a mixed reaction throughout British football.
First, there was obvious excitement throughout the blue half of Manchester. Guardiola was widely regarded one of the best managers of his generation after trophy-laden spells with Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
He was renowned for the exciting, possession-based style of play that he implemented and the team that he built at the Nou Camp at the start of the twenty-first century produced some of the best football of the modern era.
Then there were the sceptics – and there were plenty of them. The comments were predictable and filled with clichés, unevidenced assumptions and meaningless jargon.
It was suggested that Guardiola had only won trophies with clubs where the race for the title was a two-horse race at best and that he had always inherited world-class players.
Furthermore, it was claimed that the Spaniard’s total-football philosophy would never work in the hustle and bustle of English football.
His technical style of play would come unstuck in the so-called ‘best league in the world’ and would not be effective on a cold, wet Tuesday night at places like Stoke City in front of a tribal, raucous home support.
In his debut season with Manchester City some of the negative predictions appeared to be coming true.
Despite winning all of their opening 10 games of the season under Guardiola, City experienced a poor run of form during the Christmas period that left them trailing their title rivals.
The team were unpredictable and inconsistent during the second half of the campaign and heavy defeats against Everton (4-0) and Leicester City (4-2) left many onlookers wondering if Guardiola had finally been sussed.
The Spaniard never shied away from the critics and he staunchly defended his philosophy despite some poor results and vowed that he would not change his style of play.
City finished the season without a trophy and the sceptics went into the summer proclaiming how they had correctly predicted Guardiola’s failure.
What a difference a year can make.
City’s last-gasp victory against Southampton on the final day of the season rounded off what has been a record-breaking campaign in which Guardiola’s team have swept aside all before them in the Premier League.
The list of achievements is remarkable.
City this season have set new records for most consecutive wins (18), most goals scored (105), most wins (32), most away points won (16), most points (100), the biggest goal difference (+79) and the biggest points gap (19).
Suddenly the sceptics are beginning to look incredibly foolish.
In truth, it is hard to remember a campaign in the modern era where one team has been dominant from start to finish in the way that City have been. Furthermore, not only have the won, but they have won with style.
Guardiola’s playing philosophy has clicked over the last twelve months, undoubtedly aided by effective recruitment during the summer, and the team have played with flair, energy, creativity, pace and innovation.
Opponents, barring perhaps Liverpool, have simply not found any way to combat City’s free-flowing football.
Critics will still point to an early exit in the FA Cup against Wigan Athletic, where City played most of the game with ten men, and defeat in the Champions League to Liverpool, where a poor first half at Anfield effectively ended the tie before it had begun, but the success of Guardiola’s style of play is undoubted.
No one is suggesting that the Spaniard needs to alter his philosophy to meet the demands of the English game anymore.
Instead, it is English football that will need to change in order to meet the challenge of Guardiola’s football revolution.
The concern for other Premier League clubs is that City are threatening to establish themselves as the new dominant force in the domestic game. There is nothing to indicate that Guardiola or the team that he has assembled will be loosening their grip on the Premier League trophy any time soon.
The future is bright. Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, John Stones, Leroy Sane, Benjamin Mendy, Bernardo Silva, Aymeric Laporte and Ederson are all under the age of 26. This is a group of players that is still improving and will be hitting the peak years of their career over the next half-a-decade.
Manchester City’s success this season is just the start of what could turn into a period of unrivaled dominance, further underlining that Guardiola was right not to change his philosophy.