Manchester City’s Lack Is Our Gain
5:56 PM EDT on March 21, 2022
Pep Guardiola may be one of the greatest architects of elite teams the sport has ever seen, but his highly particular projects still require the finest of materials in order to stand. Thankfully, Manchester City offers him an almost unlimited budget with which to shop for parts. This has allowed the club to acquire a squad that is close to perfect. At nearly every single position, Guardiola has one and sometimes even two or three hand-picked players capable of giving his tactical setup exactly what it needs. There remains, however, one glaring exception to this, a crucial position at which City lacks even a single great, natural option, which keeps Guardiola from building his team's top floor somewhere up near the clouds. It's this limitation that defines Man City's season, and it's also what makes the club's campaign so cool.
The shortcoming I'm referring to is at center forward. The pursuit of a world-class goalscorer has long been a preoccupation for City's leadership, going back to the latter stages of Sergio Agüero's prime. This search reached its most pressing point over the summer, when Agüero left the club. In looking to replace the Argentine as the club's finisher-in-chief, City aimed high, going after renown penalty-box killers Harry Kane and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ultimately City failed on both counts, though, and rather than settling for a cheaper substitute, the club decided to hold out for something better in the future. In the interim, they'd need to make do with what they had.
With only one natural striker (Gabriel Jesus, who's coincidentally played more as a winger this season) in the squad, Guardiola has had to improvise this season. His solution has been to rotate his ungodly amount of attacking midfield-types in the center forward position. The result isn't perfect, but it has been fantastic nonetheless.
Each of Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish, Raheem Sterling, Riyad Mahrez, and Ferran Torres have spent time moonlighting as the sharp point of City's spear this season, each interpreting the position in different ways. Torres, before getting hurt and then leaving for Barcelona in the winter transfer window, proved the most orthodox striker of the lot, scrapping with center backs and making runs in behind like a born poacher. Bernardo has been the least striker-like, nominally starting high and centrally but spending the vast majority of his time roaming elsewhere. (Though City's makeshift strikers are all often called "false 9s" by dint of playing out of position, Bernardo is the only one who really performs the role.) The ever-versatile Foden has been the most complete and regularly used option at the position, lending even further support to the idea that his impending superstardom will soon come no matter which of his several different positions he decides to specialize in. Regardless of who Guardiola has turned to at center forward, City has been able to dominate games and create chances and, most importantly, score actual goals to turn that dominance into victories.
Man City's FA Cup win against Southampton over the weekend was a good demonstration of what the Sky Blues' non-traditional strategy has looked like in action. On one hand, City ended the game in a comfortable position. City's players scored all five of the match's goals—putting four past Southampton keeper Fraser Forster, but also gifting the Saints an own goal on the other end—in a game that always looked like a City victory in the making. On the other hand, during the first hour of play City struggled to convert the chances it regularly created, due in part to the absence of a dead-eyed finisher up top.
Sterling opened the scoring in the 12th minute, but between that strike, Laporte's equalizing own goal just before halftime, and Kevin De Bruyne's go-ahead penalty in the 62nd minute, City had trouble manifesting its control of the match on the scoreboard. Grealish started the match at center forward. Unsurprisingly, almost all his good work came outside of the penalty area, where he's more accustomed to playing. Even still, City did manage to chip in those two goals to gain and then reestablish the lead, after which substitutes Foden and Mahrez stepped in to turn what had been a tight match into a laugher by the final whistle.
This has been the case in Premier League play, too. City's 68 goals scored are second only to Liverpool's 75. Whereas the Reds' goals have centralized amongst its three highest scorers (Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota, and Sadio Mané have combined for 45 goals, 60 percent of the team's overall figures), City's are much more distributed (no Citizen has scored more than 10 goals individually). Without a single goalscoring specialist, City has had to rely upon the contributions of a bevy of players who are capable of but not especially great at scoring. This is part of what makes the club's season so impressive, its ability to conjure a goalscoring monster out of shadows and teamwork. It's also what makes the team vulnerable—should City lose the league title to Liverpool, it will largely come down to this shadow monster's inability to strike opponents with the same impact as a bodily monster could.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and creativity is defined as much by limitation as freedom. The need for goals has led Guardiola and City's non-striker strikers to get creative with their plans and talents. I do hope that Erling Haaland becomes a Manc in the summer and gives the club a truly perfect roster, if only to see just how perfect "perfection" really is. But I'm also glad they've had to make do this year without Kane or Ronaldo or anyone else who could make the job of winning titles easier and more direct. The work has been undoubtedly harder, but that's what makes it worthwhile.