After a rough trio of Premier League games playing three members of the top 4 race consecutively, City have now got the opportunity to ponder both what could’ve been and what still might be. Two points from three games, games in which by all accounts we could and perhaps should’ve won at least two, if not three. Yet the positive side is that Manchester United are all that remains in terms of top, top level games for us this league season, which would be nice but for City’s natural trait of grasping loss when they’re in the jaws of victory.
Last season at Stamford Bridge, a very different Chelsea were decimated a City side who themselves had underperformed, though to nothing like the Mourinho-inspired eventual 10th finish place for Chelsea. However, this time round City were again objectively good and should feel hard done to for not coming away with a point. Other than the obvious ‘buy defenders, score more goals’ dogma which we see every game, here are three things I learnt from last night’s game, two positive, one negative..
Kevin De Bruyne
Kevin De Bruyne will become a Manchester City legend. He’s already made several steps towards that in his short time here. His Champions League exploits last season, his single handed destruction of United last September, and his ‘if I wasn’t a footballer I’d be a professional Chesney from Coronation Street lookalike’ vibe about him. He’s brilliant for the statistics, notching a league high 11 assists so far this season, including some crucial ones, a la Liverpool two weeks ago. However unlike the Liverpool game, last night Kevin did not do what he normally does when he’s playing. By that I mean, Kevin, however poorly he is playing, however sloppy his standard play is, however many chances he’s missed, however simple passes he’s miss cued, will always put in a beautiful chance or two per game.
It is for that reason, Kevin De Bruyne will reach the higher echelons of the game. It is so important to have that ability to just flip on the switch and provide a chance, even if you’ve been poor all game. When goalkeepers make a good save after not having to do much in the match previously, a commentator will remark that ‘that’s the mark of a good goalkeeper’. Kevin’s consistent ability to provide a chance or a goal out of nowhere is the mark of his brilliance, too. In his ratings, Anis Bazza remarked Kevin De Bruyne hasn’t been good for a while now. And it’s true: but people don’t seem to mind because in a second, he can flip that with a moment of quality.
Kevin is probably our best player on paper, and I think the remedy to our problem is that he’s in need of a rest, but the problem is that he’s too important to drop. Even for seemingly harmless games like Hull at the weekend, where a casual fan may think, “Oh, Hull at home. City should smash it.” But they won’t for two reasons: a) it’s City, and b) Hull have been incredible since Marco Silva’s management, better than City even. So we have to play him for the guaranteed chances he’ll produce. So, the problem goes on..
Blue Delph Redemption
I know I mentioned I didn’t want to discuss squad issues too deeply, but it is so blindingly obvious that this summer will involve a heavy shifting of a lot of dead wood, some of whom City fans will be very sad to see go, others not so much. Moves look nailed on for Clichy, Zabaleta, Sagna, Caballero, Toure and Navas, since their contracts are running out. Hart, Kompany, Kolarov, Iheanacho, Mangala, Nasri, Nolito and Fernando Reges could all move on, leaving City with a reasonably small squad and plenty of room in to bring new, fresh blood to Pep’s liking. Replacements will have been identified already, and come the start of next season, we will hopefully have had 5 or 6 new additions, mostly covering defence, but some in midfield.
Another player who has been linked away is Fabian Delph. His place in the starting XI baffled everyone last night, but what was more baffling, other than the fact he lasted the full 90 minutes, is that he wasn’t half bad. Full of the energy we’ve come to expect from Delph, he certainly cuts a different proposition to the mostly immobile Yaya Touré or the currently lacklustre Fernandinho who is being used to fill in at right back. Pep supposedly refused an attempt from West Brom in January for Delph, citing he was part of his plans. I have no doubts this is in no small part due to the fact he’s from Yorkshire, rather than Andalusia or Bavaria. Regulations require City to look for talent in the first place, but have a constant eye on the home-grown status, having to be careful not to over tip the balance. Many argue that City paid almost £100m for Raheem and John and this represents bad business, but with them we have two of the four best young England players who will undoubtedly be first teamers for a good eight years. Patrick Roberts, as Adam Bailey outlined, could very well be involved next season, because of his nationality (along with quality and the fact he’s ours already).
Fabian Delph does not have the quality nor the youth of Raheem or John, but he does provide something else Pep loves: versatility. Delph is obviously capable in centre midfield, but could quite probably fill in at either right or left back. His energy levels are currently unmatched in our midfield and this creates the problem, coupled with the colour of his passport. I really think that if he wasn’t so injury prone he would 100% stay, but Pep has to decide whether to rely on yet another injury prone player or to plump for another Englishman like Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Unlike the other lost souls of our team, soon to be culled by Pep, there is certainly a case for Fabian to stay. Vincent Kompany is in a similar position, but I felt like many more column inches will be dedicated to the Kompany Conundrum than Delph.
Last night was a strange game. For starters, I didn’t expect City to win before the match. I had even less confidence when I saw the team. Navas again? Delph alone in holding midfield? “What is he thinking?” I wondered. Pep might even have ‘a bigger personality’ than John Stones putting out a side like that, especially away to the champions elect. But after the game, and as I’m writing this, I can’t help but wonder if had City put away one or two of the many chances they produced, we’d be calling it a Guardiola masterclass. Stones missed a guilt edged chance right at the death which could’ve salvaged a point, amongst other various misses. Of course, it’s the story of our season. Concede a goal in the worst circumstances, have several chances, eventually score, and then concede again. It’s death by a thousand cuts.
But there is definite progress, I believe. We’ve talked several times about the Raheem and Leroy pincer, to the point where I wrote an Ode To Leroy, and at this point I want to write a sequel given how he’s continuing to get better. Sergio Agüero is doing very well, as I mentioned in my last What We Learned. Silva is starting to get some wider recognition, though perhaps it could have come five years earlier. He’d make my all-time Premier League XI and Messi aside, is probably the best footballer in the world to just watch. After the game, I had a non-City fan, a good friend, messaging me asking me to justify Stones’ fee, and I feel like by the end of the conversation he’d come round somewhat. Gabriel Jesus is coming. Kevin De Bruyne will come back from his recent lull, of that I’m sure. We’re linked with several good young players, and finally some of our older guard will be departing.
What City, and Pep, are currently building, is not a team, but a club. We don’t like to hear it but City have often relied on buying some ready-made stars and it has often failed, now we’ve begun to change our outlook. Last summer we signed Leroy, Gabby and John. It seems this year we’re looking at Ederson and Fabinho amongst others, two young players who both have Champions League experience and youth, in addition to their obvious quality. It seems like City are trying to currently build another team who will last for 5+ years, as opposed to shooting for one year of success. There can be no excuse for our exit of the Champions League at the hands of Monaco, but next year Chelsea will be back in the Champions League, and I really feel with the right transfers and a little more experience, Pep will prove all the doubters wrong. He’s got City playing beautiful football with some seemingly terrible players, imagine what he could do with some players who can run for the full 90, and not deal with the ball at their feet like it’s an explosive device? Magical.