The team with no nine
Long before a heart condition threatened to curtail Sergio Aguero’s career, it was conventional wisdom that Manchester City required a world class replacement for their legendary striker.
Plagued by injuries, the club’s all-time highest goal scorer with 260 in just 390 games (not forgetting 73 assists), was reduced to occasional cameo appearances as City cruised to their third title in just four years. Pep Guardiola’s masterly deployment of a false number nine, meant City had regained their crown, with Sergio scoring just four of City’s 86 goal haul.
Fast forward to more than a third of the way into this campaign and City are flourishing, with 17 different players so far on the score sheet. Top of the Premier League and already through to the Champions League knockout stage, Pep has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, in what has already been an injury riddled campaign.
Loved by the players, but loathed by so many fans, the frequent and infuriating international breaks have thus far accounted for the absences – some prolonged – of key players; Phil Foden, Ferran Torres, Jack Grealish, Kevin De Bruyne and John Stones as prime examples. Far from weakening City’s results and performances, the injury list has show-cased the astonishing strength in depth of the squad, at both senior and Academy level.
City had five youngsters in the squad for the ‘dead rubber’ 2-1 defeat at RB Leipzig, namely; CJ Egan-Riley, Cole Palmer, James McAtee, Romeo Lavia and Josh Wilson-Esbrand. It was both puzzling and disappointing that only Palmer saw any action, and even that was as a sub.
Palmer and McAtee, in particular, look well equipped to follow Foden as regulars into the senior squad, and the sooner McAtee joins Palmer into committing his future to City the better.
Having already won Group A, it was curious as to why Pep fielded so many senior players in a lacklustre showing. The same cannot be said of Swiss referee Sandro Scharer, who upheld UEFA’s finest traditions with a stunning display of ‘ineptitude’ and anti-City bias. Remember his name because he’ll doubtless be back to screw City at some stage in the future.
The Leipzig result was irrelevant, but Scharer denied City a clear second half penalty – no VAR pitch side review deemed necessary – having previously booked KDB for prematurely taking a free kick. Don’t let the fact that I’m paranoid deflect from the fact that UEFA are still out to get City, whenever an opportunity arises!
The emergence of such an extraordinarily high calibre of Academy ‘graduates’ bodes well for future first team succession planning. We’re not exactly into the realms of Dad’s Army here, with Ilkay Gundogan (31), Riyad Mahrez (31 in February) and Kevin De Bruyne (30), but a pathway is clearly there for 18 and 19 year olds, who are prepared to learn from the best and show a little patience.
When it comes to the best of the best, there’s none better than Bernardo Silva’s blinding brilliance which has illuminated City like never before. It’s no exaggeration to state ‘Bubblegum’ (so called because the ball sticks to his feet), is the finest footballer in the world right now.
Disregard the likes of the Pharaoh of Formby – Mo Salah, who’s done more dives than a Sharm el Sheikh scuba diving school in the Red Sea – Bernardo’s season is brewing up a treat, as the potential Player of the Year.
City supporters have just made him the first player ever to earn three successive Etihad Player of the Month Awards (September, October & November), at a time when he’s just equalled his top goals haul in a Premier League season (7/14 games, previously, 7/36 in 2018/19), and can now boast the highest winning percentage in PL history (minimum 100 appearances) at 77%, with 112 wins from 145 games.
It was a blessing in disguise that a Covid19-decimated transfer window, meant La Liga’s big guns could not afford the Portuguese maestro, at a time when he was yearning for a change in lifestyle, warmer climes and to be closer to his homeland.
From a football perspective, Silva cannot be in a better place than as an indefatigable playmaker and goal taker in Guardiola’s starting XI. Pep is on record as saying: “We never, ever wanted Bernardo to leave Manchester City in the summer, not for one second, never ever! But he knows – everybody knows – I don’t want people who are unhappy.”
Silva’s City contract runs until the summer of 2025 when he’ll be 31. Retaining him was undoubtedly the best transfer business didn’t do last summer, but the question still remains, should Khaldoon & Co have busted a gut to sign a successor for Sergio?
Notwithstanding Aguero’s ongoing health worries, now being monitored with concern and sadness, there’s no doubt his free transfer switch to Barcelona made perfect sense.
A painfully peddled and media-hyped pursuit of Harry Kane came to nothing. How much truth there was about City’s valuation of Kane, or any concrete offers for the Spurs and England skipper, is debateable.
Did Daniel Levy really expect £120m-£150m for Kane? If he did, he was clearly living in cloud cuckoo land, despite having seen City splash out £100m, to trigger Jack Grealish’s buyout clause at Aston Villa.
Recently Grealish has come in for criticism from a minority of City supporters, but he’s a huge talent who needs time to adapt to his new environment, team mates and, above all else, Pep’s meticulous demands. He’s unfortunate in that some believe that £100m might have been better spent on a No 9, but who knows best – the greatest football manager of modern times – or a few impatient ‘fans’?
City aren’t looking too shabby in the run up to the end of the calendar year, but will Pep be in the market for a tangible and agreeable Plan B in January?
The conundrum is if City are doing so well, bamboozling opponents with roaming midfielders and a myriad of different false nines, why change it? Does the deep lying ‘striker’ mean opposing centre backs are left not knowing whether they’re having a sh*t, shave or a haircut – a phrase not necessarily found in Pep’s bible of tactical terminology?
Conversely, would having a conventional No 9, with natural goal poaching instincts, mean a substantial increase in the chances converted column?
Following the recent away wins at Villa and Watford, Pep himself has remarked on how both games should have been done and dusted at half time. Instead of 2-0 leads, it could and should have been 4-0, 5-0 even 6-0, with the opposition dead and buried.
Even if the Kane saga ever had any credence, surely the moment has long gone. He’s 29 next birthday, his ankles aren’t exactly robust and, to all intent and purposes, he’s out-of-form. Add into the mix Levy will still think he can win the lottery with the transfer fee, and it should be a non-starter.
As for the clamour for Dortmund’s Erling Haaland, surely City won’t entertain a move whereby Mino Raiola – the Norwegian forward’s agent – pockets tens of millions from any deal? If – and it’s unlikely – Haaland did join City, it’s a fair bet Raiola would be agitating for a move to La Liga within five years, and probably on a Bosman.
Just look at the Paul Pogba shenanigans at Old Trafford for the direction of travel of Raiola’s clients.
The most pragmatic option could be Dusan Vlahovic, Fiorentina’s 21-yr old Serbian centre forward. He's netted 40 times in 93 Serie A appearances – including 13 in just 16 matches this season – virtually half of the Florence club’s haul of 27 goals.
Since making his international debut last year, he’s scored seven goals in 14 games, and was part of the Serbian team which consigned a star studded Portugal to the World Cup play-offs, after a shock 2-1 victory in Lisbon.
Vlahovic wouldn’t come cheap, but any fee and wages would be considerably less than that being touted for Haaland. In addition, the Serb would be more readily available, if Pep wants reinforcements next month. The lack of any future wrangling with Raiola would be an additional bonus.
PS: The headline on this article in no way seeks to disrespect Gabriel Jesus who just happens to wear the number nine shirt. We at RBNR love Gabby!
This blog is dedicated to the memory of a beautiful lady blue, Laveen Robson who passed away last month. Loved and adored by all who knew her in ‘real life’ – especially her partner Ian, son Daniel and her fur babies of Miniature Schnauzers, Dollie, George, Bluebell and Merlin, not forgetting Pete the cat – Laveen also had thousands of friends on social media who admired her strength, compassion, kindness and wit.
Laveen was a member of the MCFC Blackpool & Fylde, Manchester City Official Supporters Club and was visited by City legend Paul Dickov at the Trinity Hospice in Blackpool last summer, when he brought along the Premier League trophy and Carabao Cup to help raise her spirits.
MCFC Blackpool & Fylde are raising funds, via a Just Giving page, for Trinity Palliative Care Services and Brian House Children’s Hospice this Christmas, thanking them for the care provided to Laveen.
By David Walker