My partner, Jane Seymour, and I were in the Manchester United director’s box at Saturday’s derby match, guests of United director, Michael Edelson and his lovely wife Jacky…I was at Bury Grammar School with Michael in the 1960’s and lived on the same road but, remarkably, as he was four years older, never actually met until 2019 at the Etihad.
I was naturally the only one to stand and cheer when Grealish headed City into a second-half lead and quickly sat down again knowing I was pushing my luck and unfortunately, I was of course the only one left seated when the final whistle blew while my brother, Geoffrey, sitting next to me and a fanatical Red, led the cheering.
The defeat by a much-improved United marked a watershed moment for City in this strangely inconsistent season…there have been endless, often over-elaborate, theories trying to explain this and I think it’s no more complex than the evolutionary process of integrating a major new player into Pep’s unique and constantly-changing systems.
Erling Haaland is the key and his phenomenal twenty-one goals in sixteen Prem games hides the fact that playing with a false number nine has been hugely successful for City in recent seasons, creating midfield overloads that are no longer pivotal, as the extra man is now up front and centre in the most traditional of football roles: the old-fashioned goalscoring centre-forward…and it’s taking time to adapt.
But adapt Pep undoubtedly will as he always does, and I don’t see alarm bells ringing any time soon, if ever. Arguably, City have the best players and deepest squad on the planet, losing only three Prem games, and remain clear Champions League favourites but the transition to a Haaland-led attack is taking its toll on short-term results.
To get the best out of Haaland, Pep has pushed De Bruyne further forward than usual, just behind Haaland, to provide the link between midfield and the front three, leaving Silva or Gundogan playing alongside and just in front of Rodri but behind De Bruyne.
This midfield twosome (or threesome if you include De Bruyne) is supported by a constantly aggressive and forward-pushing back four, which can quickly change to a back three when one of the full-backs moves up into midfield and inside to create an overload…and this happens constantly.
Problem is that Walker and Cancelo, the first-choice full-backs, have gone off the boil since Qatar, and Foden has also temporarily lost his mojo wide on the left…teenage prodigy Rico Lewis and the stellar Ake are proving fine full-back alternatives although Ake’s best City season to date may be wasted out wide rather than in the middle of the back four where he and Akanji are the only two fully fit.
And none of this is helped by the constant centre-back injuries…Dias and Stones remain on the treatment table, as did Laporte until recently…however, Grealish is a fine alternative to Foden while he struggles to regain his form…and World Cup Winner, Alverez, is there to keep Haaland fresh and on his toes, and also provide competition for the now excellent Mahrez who also started the season slowly…it can all change so quickly.
So what next? … the two quick home games against Tottenham and Wolves over the next week will provide clues.
I suspect Pep will try to vary De Bruyne’s role more from game to game so that it doesn’t become too predictable and make more use of the in-form Lewis and Grealish while he further integrates Haaland’s remarkable goal-scoring exploits into the bigger picture for the greater good of the team’s results rather than just constantly breaking individual goal-scoring records.