The central defensive pairing will be particularly interesting to see in the Manchester City line-up v Sunderland.
When Manuel Pellegrini announced he would be leaving Manchester City at the expiry of his contract—in a pre-match press conference ahead of his side’s trip to the Stadium of Light this past February—and the club then confirmed via a written statement that an agreement had been reached with Pep Guardiola to become Manchester City’s manager, excitement amid everyone concerned with City was palpable.
That excitement which had been ignited by Pellegrini gracefully announcing his departure from the club and City confirming Guardiola as their new manager, reached another level when the Catalan was unveiled in front of Manchester City fans on July 3rd, 2016. Guardiola spoke about the importance of team spirit, what made him come to City and the possibility of bringing Lionel Messi from Barcelona, and his words must have been music to City fans’ ears.
And, as the days have gone by, the excitement has only kept transcending—and understandably so, before the start of a new season. With just two days to go for the start of the Premier League 2016/17 season and Guardiola’s first official game as Manchester City manager, there is excitement surrounding the starting XI Guardiola will pick to face David Moyes’ Sunderland on Saturday.
Manchester City Line-up v Sunderland
City did not enjoy an enviable pre-season and four games, including behind closed doors game against SPL’s St Johnstone, were probably not enough for Guardiola to instil his ideas and philosophies into Manchester City players. However, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager will want to get off to a winning start to his life in the Premier League. And, to do which, he will need to put out a strong Manchester City starting XI.
Guardiola is an innovative coach who wants his teams to play a high-tempo, quick passing game, but he rarely hesitates to tweak his tactics to give himself and his team the best chance of winning a football match. Against Moyes’ side, you can expect Guardiola, who deployed Bayern in a gamut of formations such as 4-1-4-1, 3-4-1-2, 3-2-3-2, 4-3-3, to set his new team up in the 4-2-3-1 formation, which is also how City lined up in their pre-season games. And, the reason is, the players who would get into Guardiola’s first-choice XI—Ilkay Gundogan and Leroy Sane, more prominently—are not fit to play in the Premier League opener. Once they are fit and ready to start games, you will see Guardiola deploying City in the other formations mentioned above.
In goal, Willy Caballero, owing to the sheer number of minutes he has played during City’s pre-season, can be expected to start against Sunderland.
John Stones became the latest Manchester City signing of the 2016 summer transfer window and, having had three complete days to train with his new teammates, he is a probable starter in City’s four-man backline against the Black Cats. The focus, therefore, shifts to Stones’ central defensive partner. Aleksandar Kolarov, Fernando Reges and Tosin Adarabioyo played the most number of minutes at centre-back in Manchester City’s pre-season fixtures, while Nicolas Otamendi featured in the International Champions Cup (ICC) game against Borussia Dortmund. Of the four, only Adarabioyo and Otamendi are the specialist centre-backs. Will the number of minutes played by Adarabioyo prompt Guardiola to hand the 18-year-old his Premier League debut? Or, will he still back the experienced Otamendi and start him alongside Stones? With Stones possibly making his City debut, Guardiola will think twice about pairing Adarabioyo with Stones and injecting plenty of nervous energy into an already shaky City rearguard. Therefore, Otamendi, if fit, will probably start alongside Stones.
At left-back, Gael Clichy should be the probable starter, even though Angelino Tasende did play quite a lot of minutes during pre-season and also showed that he can hold his own in City’s first team. Guardiola will have another difficult decision to make regarding who starts at right-back. Bacary Sagna returned to pre-season training only last week, and Zabaleta played in just one of City’s pre-season fixtures, so both these veterans have not had enough match practice for Guardiola to feel confident about starting either of them. Zabaleta, given the attacking impetus he can provide City, might well get the nod ahead of Sagna.
Selecting the double-pivot in the Manchester City line-up v Sunderland should not be as difficult a decision for Guardiola as selecting the centre-back pairing is. Fernandinho and Fabian Delph could well be the two midfielders who start as City’s central defensive midfielders on Saturday. Both these players have bundle of energy and the passing ability, making them highly pertinent for the kind of high-pressing, quick passing game, which Guardiola favours. The tempo at which City play on Saturday, at least, could well hinge on how Delph and Fernandinho fare.
In the middle-third of the pitch, Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, Raheem Sterling, and Nolito will be in a battle for the three spots behind the striker, in the Manchester City line-up v Sunderland. De Bruyne might come off the bench and I expect the Nolito-Silva-Sterling trio, who played in City’s final pre-season fixture, to start against Saturday’s visitors to the Etihad Stadium. This attacking trio have also had a sufficient number of minutes under their belts during pre-season and are also the type of players who would fit into Guardiola’s blueprint seamlessly.
Sergio Aguero, who scored two of City’s three pre-season goals, should start as the lone striker for Manchester City against Sunderland. The Argentine played for more than an hour (66 minutes) in City’s pre-season fixture against Arsenal in Sweden last Sunday and also featured in the ICC fixture against Thomas Tuchel’s side.
Manchester City’s substitutes v Sunderland
Joe Hart, Fernando, Kolarov, Yaya Toure, Kelechi Iheanacho, Kevin de Bruyne, and Jesus Navas.
As was mentioned in the preamble, the side Guardiola picks for his first official fixture as Manchester City manager, should be an interesting one. The backline is where Guardiola will have tough selection decisions to make. And, regardless of the back four he picks in the Manchester City line-up v Sunderland, they, along with City’s goalkeeper, will still have a massive job to do with regards to playing the ball out from the back. Or, will Guardiola be pragmatic and ask his goalkeeper and defenders to just do their basics and forget playing the ball out from the back on Saturday? He should, ideally. The midfielders, attacking midfielders and the striker should really pick themselves in the Manchester City line-up v Sunderland.