Manchester City are enduring the biggest low of their 2016-17 campaign so far, after league defeats to Chelsea (home) and Leicester City (away) have seen them drop to fourth on the 2016-17 Premier League table and seven points behind Antonio Conte’s men.
Pep Guardiola has had his philosophy and acumen questioned and the Catalan coach, we can definitely say, finds himself in uncharted territory as far as his managerial career is concerned.
December, a month in which the Blues were to face three of this season’s title contenders (Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool), was always going to be a pivotal month in City’s quest to regain the Premier League title that they last won in the 2013-14 season under Manuel Pellegrini. And, City could not have made a worse start to the month, as mortifying defeats to Chelsea (1-3) and Claudio Ranieri’s Foxes (4-2) have cast a major doubt on the Etihad outfit’s title credentials.
Such has been Manchester City’s form in December that Watford will arrive at the Etihad Stadium tonight, quite confident of heaping more misery on the home side. City’s home form is also a worry, with Guardiola’s men having won just one of their last six home games, and that victory came against Barcelona on matchday four of the UEFA Champions League. The Catalan giants were simply blown away by a slick Manchester City display in the second 45′.
Focussing on Manchester City’s Premier League fixture against the Hornets tonight, here’s the starting XI Guardiola should ideally pick, to give himself and his team the best chance of returning to winning ways.
Manchester City Starting XI v Watford
If I was Guardiola, I’ll deploy my side in the 4-2-3-1 system, which renders greater balance than any other and is better suited to the players who I have at my disposal currently.
Claudio Bravo has endured a wretched start to his Manchester City career, which is partially due to his errors in judgment and partially because the troika or quartet in front of him have been extremely poor. But, for tonight’s home against Watford, as City’s No. 1, Bravo should take his place in goal, hoping to add to the two clean sheets he has kept so far in 12 league fixtures.
Bacary Sagna, who has seen considerably little game time (617 minutes in the Premier League and 113 minutes in the UEFA Champions League) in all competitions this season, should ideally be picked to play at right-back. The reason is, the Frenchman is better suited than Pablo Zabaleta, to a physical and direct game that Watford are expected to engage tonight’s hosts in. Sagna has enjoyed a better aerial duel success rate than Zabaleta in this Premier League season, winning 54% of his headed duels compared to Zabaleta’s 45%.
Nicolas Otamendi, having completed his one-game suspension for receiving five yellow cards, should ideally be reinstated to the Manchester City starting line-up against Walter Mazzarri’s men. The Argentine centre-back made a really costly error against Chelsea which resulted in the West Londoners taking the lead through Willian. But, in Vincent Kompany’s absence and on the whole, Otamendi has arguably been City’s best centre-back so far this season.
Alongside Otamendi, Guardiola has two options from which to choose: he can stick with Stones at centre-back or play Aleksandar Kolarov to Otamendi’s left and bring in Gael Clichy for the 22-year-old English centre-back. The 172nd Manchester Derby saw Otamendi and Stones thrive as a centre-back partnership, which, however, has been too erroneous.
But, given that Kolarov provides an inherent attacking threat at left-back, if I was Guardiola, I’ll stick with the Otamendi-Stones centre-back partnership and deploy Kolarov at left-back, where the Serbian played against the Foxes and saw his sluggishness exposed big time by Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. Watford do not have players with the pace of Vardy or Mahrez and at home, Manchester City are expected to have the lion’s share of the possession, meaning Kolarov is unlikely to be as exposed as he was by the fleet-footed Foxes’ frontmen.
In Fernandinho’s absence, Fernando Reges is an automatic starter who can be defensively sound ahead of what is a shaky Manchester City defence. Alongside him, I will play Yaya Toure, who is well known for his knack of scoring goals from midfield. Ilkay Gundogan has seen a dip in form and was virtually anonymous against Leicester last Saturday. And, with City struggling for goals with and without Sergio Aguero in their starting line-up, the talismanic Ivorian is an essential part of City’s blueprint.
Ahead of this midfield duo, Nolito should ideally come in place of Jesus Navas, who, as saddening as it is to say, continues to remain an enigma. And, again, with Manchester City struggling to score goals, the former Celta Vigo man is just the kind of player they need, to carry more potency going forward. Nolito should, obviously, be played on the left, with David Silva being played centrally behind the striker. Leroy Sane should also ideally return to Manchester City’s starting line-up.
Guardiola’s team selections have been baffling lately and the decision to drop Sane for the away clash against Leicester last weekend after the German had put in arguably his best performance in a City shirt, against Chelsea, was nothing short of ridiculous. Raheem Sterling was subbed in for the last quarter against the Foxes last Saturday and is probably fit to start, after recovering completely from the knee injury he suffered against Burnley. But if I was Guardiola, I’ll play him from the bench once again and hand a deserved start to Sane.
Up top, Guardiola has to make a decision: does he hand Kelechi Iheanacho another start, after hooking him before the hour mark against Leicester or does he play Kevin de Bruyne up front? In my opinion, de Bruyne is, next to Aguero, City’s most natural goal scorer and given that he can play across multiple positions in the middle and final thirds, I will play him as my marksman for tonight’s game. Because if you play Iheanacho and he does not see enough of the ball, he will be ineffective and City will not benefit either; on the other hand, de Bruyne, as a proven goal scorer and creator, will see plenty of the ball and will be able to have a positive effect on City’s attacks, too.
Manchester City’s defence has to do the basics right if the Blues are to return to winning ways ahead of the league meeting against Arsenal this Sunday. City haven’t been a potent attacking force either over the last troika of games at least, but if de Bruyne plays up top, City will inherently carry much more of a goal threat than they probably will, without the Belgian.
Manchester City’s Original Starting XI v Watford: Pablo Zabaleta (C), Claudio Bravo, Aleksandar Kolarov, Nicolas Otamendi, Gael Clichy, Ilkay Gundogan, Yaya Toure, David Silva, Nolito, Raheem Sterling, and Kevin de Bruyne.
Pep Guardiola continues to overlook Leroy Sane!