Wouldn’t it be ironic, after two false nine seasons, if Manchester City suddenly found themselves with too many forwards?
Compared to the number of wingers they would have, of course. Should Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus both leave, following the arrivals of Erling Haaland and Julian Alvarez, this is the situation they could find themselves in.
And, it must be said, this is the one they are prepared for. The idea of Sterling and Jesus leaving in the coming weeks does not shock anyone in any senior position at City: it is a situation that has been building for at least a year.
The city has a good idea of how its summer will unfold. Their two main targets are Leeds United midfielder Kalvin Phillips and Brighton left-back Marc Cucurella. They know some (but probably not all) of Sterling, Jesus, Ilkay Gundogan, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Bernardo Silva could leave. They expect Riyad Mahrez to stay.
These things don’t always go exactly to plan (Bernardo’s future is likely to hinge on Barcelona’s ability to raise enough money to spend at least £75m, for example), but all of that is what City has in mind at the moment. Which means they have no intention of buying another winger.
So let’s say Sterling and Jesus both leave. Chelsea have become favorites to sign Sterling, whose contract expires next summer. He worried about his playing time over a year ago and nothing that has happened since has convinced him he would get the minutes he wants if he were to stay at the stadium Etihad. It’s essentially the same situation as Jesus, who has an offer on the table from Arsenal, although Chelsea are also interested in him.
If good enough offers arrive for both players, City won’t stop them, although the prospect of them moving on to domestic rivals is less than ideal.
In this case, City’s wide options would be Phil Foden and Jack Grealish on the left and Mahrez and Cole Palmer on the right. With Haaland and Alvarez in the middle, they still have six players for three positions, two per position, just in a very different way from before.
Pep Guardiola spoke about needing to ‘shake up’ the team more than a year ago but that hasn’t happened. Suddenly, the front line, in particular, could get a new feel very soon. Having No.9s in the mold of Haaland and Alvarez, who are more than happy to attack spaces behind the opposing defense and sniff out goals in the box, would be a new feature after two years of technical little midfielders filling the memory of the attacker. dropping into midfield (although the new boys will have to do that too).
Haaland’s pace provides City with a new counter-attacking threat, as does Alvarez’s for that matter, although it looks like Guardiola would lack a quick and dynamic threat, particularly on the right.
As Sterling himself described a few months ago, City’s game has slowly changed since the days of Leroy Sane.
“It was more dynamic, more crossed: me on one side, Leroy Sane on the other; two motorcycles, just zoom zoom zoom zoom constant. Now it’s more patient, more goalkeeper and less dynamic, but both teams kept the ball very well and scored goals.
Without Sterling, City wouldn’t have that pure pace to attack the wide box, and Haaland would be without another quick team-mate to break away from him, although it has to be said that a big part of why Sterling could leave is that he hasn’t played in that many games so it’s not like they’ve really missed him in the last two seasons considering they’ve won the title in both .
It would be nice to have the option and the flexibility, though, and down the right City would have two players broadly similar to Mahrez and Palmer – they’re both very comfortable in tight spaces and can twist and turn on the edge of the box to probe the openings. They can beat a man, sure, but not with the kind of explosiveness of Sterling or even Jesus, who’s been used as a winger for the past year.
Some City fans grew frustrated with the end of both players, but Sterling was the club’s third top scorer last season and Jesus was fifth. Between them, they have scored 30 goals in 2021-22.
If Haaland had the kind of impact expected, even though most of City’s new signings need time to settle in, he could shoulder most of that burden on his own given his finishing ability. Alvarez can also help, but he can’t be counted on to make an immediate impact.
Foden and Mahrez have provided a steady stream of goals over the past two seasons, but others are expected to contribute as well.
At 20, Palmer has a big season ahead of him. He made 11 senior appearances last season but that figure would likely have increased had he not picked up an injury in January which kept him out for several months.
Part of the reason City were comfortable letting Ferran Torres go was that they believed Palmer, based on what they saw in the first half of last season, had a ceiling. higher than the Spaniard, whom they had rated highly.
At the time, Palmer had a good chance of entering the team as a false nine (or even a true No. 9, as he demonstrated by alternating roles in a game against Everton ), but next season his best bet is on the right. wing. And City expect him to play a lot more next season.
On the left, City would really need Grealish to start their second season, and that wouldn’t come as a big surprise given the fortunes of most other signings over the past five or six years, who really shined after their first year. at the club.
Grealish, in theory, fills that Sterling role from the left, as he can start wide and carry the ball downfield, cut to his stronger right foot, or just carry the ball to the line and take it out. . City have already planned for Grealish to cut inside and cross towards the back post for Haaland. More goals would be especially helpful considering who could leave.
Restoring Foden to the left is an exciting proposition, given he looked so dynamic there during his breakthrough campaign in 2020-21. It has to be said, he is deceptively fast and can dribble past high-speed players in a style similar to Sane. Sources close to him have also said he would like to play on the right side, which could give City another option if things don’t work out, for whatever reason, with Mahrez or Palmer.
Alvarez is an unknown quantity in many ways. The River Plate striker will join City for pre-season and his performances over the summer will determine how well he is used next season.
Stylistically, he’s a good fit as the false nine/traditional No.9 striker hybrid that Guardiola wants, but City are cautious about the leap in quality between Argentine football and the Premier League. That said, the club have been increasingly impressed with Alvarez since he agreed the deal in January and Guardiola, in particular, is delighted to work with him.
Over the past year he’s played largely in the middle, but he’s played on the right before that, and that could be an option once the summer starts to take shape.
There are several question marks on the front line, but there are certainly enough exciting, high-potential options that could form a dynamic, free-scoring attacking unit – and not just Haaland, one of the most attractive signings in Premier League history.
There is also the possibility of James McAtee getting a few minutes in the attack. Although he is a midfielder, he is more likely to be introduced to the team in a wide role, like Foden and Palmer before him. Several clubs would like to sign him, including Leeds, but McAtee and City are expecting a first-team involvement next season. Liam Delap, meanwhile, is expected to be loaned out.
So there are plenty of ways City’s forward line could look like next season. The only certainty is that things will be very different.
(Photo: Matt McNulty – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)