Another trophy in the bag but they’ve spent much of the season choking on Liverpool’s dust…
Best player: Kevin De Bruyne
Pep Guardiola told De Bruyne at their first meeting that he could ‘easily’ become one of the top five players in the world. Despite City’s struggles, at least the Belgium playmaker can look back at this season and tick off that particular target.
De Bruyne was looking to make up for lost time after missing too much of last season through injury and not only has he demonstrated once more that he is peerless in the Premier League, but the 28-year-old has taken on a leadership role in a City squad transitioning from Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho and David Silva setting the standards.
From De Bruyne’s perspective, it’s a pity that his team-mates have not been able to match his standards. Contributing to 25 goals in 26 appearances was not enough to stop City slipping off Liverpool’s tail but De Bruyne’s record is better than anyone’s in the Premier League and in the Champions League, he was at the very heart of City’s rousing fightback against Real Madrid. It was a symbolic triumph with De Bruyne orchestrating from a central role while Fernandinho, Silva and Sergio Aguero all watched on from the bench.
City’s problem now is what De Bruyne decides to do about the club’s European ban. As things stand, the former Chelsea misfit will be 31 by the time City can return to the Champions League. Can De Bruyne afford to spend what should be his peak years out of the European spotlight? Probably not if he wants to retain his current standing among the continent’s best. Arguably everyone else in Guardiola’s squad is replaceable. De Bruyne, right now for City, is not.
Biggest disappointment: Joao Cancelo
Guardiola loves nothing more than splurging on a full-back and he was indulged again last summer when City spaffed £60million on the Portugal right-back, while simultaneously refusing to pay above £70million for Harry Maguire.
That wasn’t Cancelo’s fault but the 25-year-old has to take most of the blame for a miserable maiden season in England. He has made just eight Premier League starts and was missing from the squad entirely when City won the Carabao Cup final. Cancelo was linked with a sharp exit in January, and Guardiola did little to refute such talk at the time.
“It depends on him,” Guardiola said after leaving Cancelo out of the 18 at Wembley. “I can suggest but the players have to decide the rest.”
One positive of Cancelo’s arrival has been the improvement in Kyle Walker’s form in the face of what was perceived to be a genuine threat to his place. But for £60million, Guardiola and City were expecting so much more.
Best performance: Real Madrid 1-2 Manchester City
City’s best display of the season was meticulously planned by Guardiola and executed almost flawlessly by his players.
De Bruyne admitted even City’s players were surprised when Pep presented his blueprint for beating Real, who had not lost a Champions League knockout tie under Zinedine Zidane. It involved Aguero, David Silva, Fernandinho and Raheem Sterling all spectating from the bench, while Gabriel Jesus played off the flank with De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva operating centrally in attack.
If City’s players were caught off guard, you can’t blame Real’s stars for wondering what the f*ck was going on during a game at the Bernabeu in which they never seized control. They were restricted to just one chance in the first half and their goal came from a City error.
When City equalised, it was no more than they deserved. Nor was the lead when it came after De Bruyne netted an ice-cool penalty after Guardiola had dispatched Sterling from the bench to win a penalty.
Guardiola will have agonised over his plan for months before City went to Madrid but their first-leg victory was proof for the doubters that the City boss can still turn a trick and his players are still pulling for him.
Worst performance: Liverpool 3-1 Manchester City
If you listen to uber-positive Pep, City never play a bad game. Indeed, the manager said they played ‘an incredible game’ at Anfield. But they were found badly wanting in key moments which conspired to leave the champions trailing Liverpool by eight points, when a victory at Anfield would have left them within a win of top spot.
City were rocked by Ederson’s absence and while Claudio Bravo’s inclusion could not be avoided, Guardiola’s decision to play Angelino while leaving Benjamin Mendy in the stands raised a few eyebrows, especially given the makeshift nature of the rest of City’s defence.
That rearguard crumbled at the first whiff of trouble, with Fabinho and Mo Salah putting Liverpool 2-0 up inside 13 minutes. City were furious that the opener came after a penalty appeal at the other end but the second highlighted the visitors’ defensive deficiencies. The third, when it came after half-time, was a result of Bravo’s customary balls-up.
Guardiola took umbrage with some of the officials’ decisions and the fact they had 18 shots at Anfield suggest they carried a threat. But only three of those efforts were on target and the Blues struggled to match Liverpool as they put their foot down in the title race while City for the first time tasted dust at the back of their throats.
Biggest VAR moment: Laporte and the ‘handball’
City were seething that neither the referee nor the VAR official scrubbed out Fabinho’s opener to give them a penalty instead after Trent Alexander-Arnold’s handball in the Liverpool box. Another claim involving Alexander-Arnold sent Guardiola loopy… but VAR’s most dramatic intervention in City’s season came in their first home game when Spurs came to the Etihad.
For the second time in barely four months, VAR pissed all over City’s parade denying them another late winner, as had been the case in the Champions League quarter-final last season. This time, the officials eventually reached the conclusion that the ball had brushed Aymeric Laporte’s arm before it reached goalscorer Gabriel Jesus.
“We have to accept it,” said Guardiola though his expression suggested he was still working through that process. It came only a week after VAR played a starring role in City’s 5-0 win at West Ham in the first Premier League game of the season.
📺 After consulting the VAR, referee Michael Oliver has overturned the goal because there was a handball by Aymeric Laporte in the build-up
— Premier League (@premierleague) August 17, 2019
Did their recruitment work?
Cancelo, as we have discussed, was a waste of time and effort and Angelino got little better after being described as ‘absolutely awful’ in pre-season by former City full-back Andy Hinchcliffe. It was far less of a surprise that he was shipped out on loan to RB Leipzig in January than it was to see him darkening City’s doorstep again last summer.
How do you assess Rodri’s maiden season in the Premier League? Only Sterling has played more minutes than the £62million midfielder, who hasn’t enjoyed the most stable environment in which to bed in to English football owing to the chaos unfolding behind him. He has shown signs of being able to do all the things Guardiola expects from a holding midfielder; he can rotate the ball or penetrate lines with his passing. But Rodri hasn’t done it consistently enough, nor has he dominated matches. That may come and perhaps next season he will grow into a more commanding presence.
Despite breaking their transfer record to bring in the Spain midfielder, last summer will be remembered for what they did not do. Refusing to bring in a centre-back was negligent and set City up to fail from the start of the campaign.
Manager’s job security: Well…
Hard to say. There’s a lot to unpack here…
When it comes to Guardiola’s future, the European ban may be decisive. Should they fail in their appeal, Pep won’t fancy a couple of years away from the Champions League. Especially when there were already doubts over his intentions before UEFA handed down their judgement. Reacting to that punishment, Guardiola suggested he would not abandon City and it may be that he feels obligated to see out his contract.
Guardiola’s deal is up at the end of next season, but already he has been at City for as long as any of his other coaching jobs. He did four years at Barcelona before he needed a sabbatical and three years was enough at Bayern. Has he got the energy for a rebuild at City without the motivation of the Champions League?
We don’t know, Pep doesn’t seem too sure and City aren’t taking any chances if reports they are identifying possible successors are to be believed.
What they need in the summer:
To overturn their Champions League ban.
Regardless of whether they are successful in that particular battle, next on the to-do list is to sign a sodding centre-back. We know Pep likes his defenders to be able to play and, of course, an Andy Morrison-type won’t do. But City do need someone with ‘capable of organising a defence’ primary among his credentials.
Beyond that, City may need to spend the rest of the summer reassuring the players they have that they can fulfil their ambitions at the Etihad, despite the prospect of two seasons out of the Champions League. We know David Silva is going but Pep has Phil Foden to step into Merlin’s boots. Leroy Sane and Riyad Mahrez could both leave, which will leave City extremely short on width.
The F365 Show is on hiatus until the football returns. Subscribe now ready for its glorious comeback. In the meantime, listen to the latest episode of Planet Football’s 2000s podcast, The Broken Metatarsal.