With the scores perfectly poised at two all and what should have been a heavyweight clash descending, heavy-footed, into one of the most pedestrian last 15 minutes you’ll ever see on a football field, Arsenal vs Manchester City was in desperate need of a spark.
Substitutes are designed for occasions like this when things start to lag. Pep Guardiola’s decision to bring on Pablo Zabaleta in the 89th minute so as to free Jesús Navas from the shackles of a makeshift right full-back role showed just how little faith he has in his back-up options. Nolito, Fabian Delph, Vincent Kompany and Aleksandar Kolarov were the four unused outfield players in this game and there’d be no surprise if all four left the club this summer.
Ultimately, it is City’s lack of squad depth that has left them so far below the level required to win the Premier League. Injuries to Kompany, İlkay Gündoğan and Gabriel Jesus have done Guardiola no favours but even with the trio fully fit the side has huge gaps both at full-back and on the flanks. Remove Leroy Sané or Raheem Sterling from the set up and the team instantly becomes imbalanced and less threatening. The pair have 10 league goals and six assists between them compared to the four goals and two assists Navas and Nolito have contributed. In fairness to Nolito, all six of those contributions were made by him.
The club would be wise to target Monaco and Tottenham Hotspur this summer where Benjamin Mendy, Djibril Sidibé, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker have impressed but may look closer to home in providing Sané and Sterling with back up. At 20-years-old, carrying an English passport and already belonging to the club, few would argue against Patrick Roberts coming straight into the squad next season.
Roberts registered two assists and netted his fourth SPL goal of the season in a 5-0 win over Hearts at the weekend. The perfectly-executed curl into the top corner was the fourth in a win that secured Celtic their sixth consecutive league title, prompting fans of the Bhoys to take to Twitter and plead for their club to make his loan spell permanent in the next transfer window.
Celtic supporter and youth talent scout Brendán MacFarlane was rapturous in his praise of the winger, tweeting: “How good was Patrick Roberts yesterday? The guy is a class act. One of the biggest potentials I’ve seen in a Celtic player for years.”
Roberts is set to return to the Etihad Stadium when his two-year loan deal expires this summer and while Celtic Park will be sad to see the back of him, there is a feeling among City’s own fan base that he is ready to step up for the club he joined in 2015. Roberts trumps both Nolito and Navas in terms of dynamism and dribbling ability, while also possessing the burst of pace required to beat tired opponents. The eight assists he has to his name show that there’s end product, too. It’s likely that most of Roberts’ contributions will be made from the bench should Guardiola decide to make use of the Englishman’s talents next term but you’d put your bets on a Sterling-Roberts switch in the 75th minute being more productive than a Zabaleta-Silva one in the 89th.
City will almost certainly allow the technically limited Navas’ contract to expire at the end of the season and the 31-year-old will head back to Sevilla regarded among City fans as a real workhorse who, unfortunately, was never good enough. Nolito, who seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth in the last few months, may well follow his compatriot back to Spain, leaving City worryingly short of wingers. Recent reports have linked the club to Wilfried Zaha and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – two players with superior Premier League experience than Roberts but by no means superior ability. In many senses, Roberts ticks all the boxes.
If Guardiola really is going to prioritise building an English core this summer, the former Fulham man should be the first name on the list.