If we had told you before the season started that a Pep Guardiola-led Manchester City – having spent big in the summer – would be in the running for just one trophy by mid-March, you’d probably have laughed.
And yet, after Monaco last week unceremoniously dumped Europe’s highest spenders of the last decade out of the Champions League, that’s exactly where we are. City have roundly failed to meet any of their targets in Pep’s debut season, and with the manager’s job (for now) under little threat, people are beginning to have their doubts about his cavalry.
Did Pep, whose major summer signings were promising youngsters, over-estimate the quality of his squad? You can certainly argue that is the case with his defenders – Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna just aren’t cut out for the demands the Catalan makes of his full-backs – but he was surely right to earmark the awesome Kevin De Bruyne for a key role his new-look side.
KDB had a scintillating debut season under Manuel Pellegrini, hitting 16 goals (including two against PSG in the Champions League quarter-finals). It wasn’t just his ability to find the net though: the Belgian playmaker was also a classic number 10 as well, pulling the strings from tight spaces around the penalty box.
With Pep in charge of tactics, things are a little different. Pellegrini (whose record at the Eithad is now being put into perspective) was rather cruelly derided as a simple yes man, but it was also true that his match approach was somewhat lassez-faire. The Chilean was apt to over-loading the team with forwards, even during big games, and encouraged his players to express themselves.
“David is one of the best players I ever trained in my life. I am a lucky guy to be with him. A lucky guy.”
– Pep on Silva
Pep likes expression, but only within the confines of the Tiki-Taka philosophy of which he’s a proud advocate. There are a few flamboyant mavericks who struggled to rein in their instinct for the spectacular under the possession-based former Bayern manager, Mario Gotze being the most obvious example. On the other hand, more controlled playmakers like Andrés Iniesta, Thiago Alcântara, and now at City, David Silva, (incidentally, all of whom were schooled in Spain) tend to thrive.
KDB, at the moment, is seeing his space eaten into by fellow attackers. Last season he was – alongside Raheem Sterling – one of two attackers playing behind Sergio Aguero, but the summer acquisition of Leroy Sane has pushed him back into an area of the pitch he isn’t nearly as effective from.
Silva, a player the City boss has always admired, meanwhile, looks better than ever before, despite now being in his early 30s. The Spanish wizard is benefitting from the more structured way his team is being set up, and with willing forward runners in Sterling and Sane, his beautifully weighted through balls are making him look every inch the archetypal modern play-maker.
— Sky Sports Statto (@SkySportsStatto) March 5, 2017
KDB himself is not entirely blameless in all of this. The former Chelsea man may be adjusting to life under a new coach, but the quality of his performances has dropped. He’s not creating openings out of nothing the way he did last year: five goals from 37 games just isn’t up to par for a player of his level – especially in a team where all of his fellow attackers have been chipping in (even Iheanacho, a bit-part player, has hit seven).
Despite this, he’s escaped the sort of criticism that other big money strugglers like Mesut Ozil and Paul Pogba have received – probably because he already proved last season that he has what it takes to be one of the world’s best in his position (plus, City have a couple of high-profile flops to deflect the attention in John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi).
That’s good news for Pep and City, given KDB has in the past come under criticism for lacking mental fortitude (notably by former coach Mourinho), and you wonder how he would cope with a barrage of media pressure. Ultimately, he’ll definitely be a key man in Pep’s rebuilding job next season, but don’t expect him to be City’s go-to number 10 until Silva hangs up his boots.
Do either KDB or Silva make it into the Manchester-Merseyside combined XI…