Rodri, João Cancelo, John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva: the Manchester City A-list acts recently dropped by Pep Guardiola for culpabilities (apparently) unknown.
This is the savant manager’s intriguing idiosyncrasy: an enigmatic bent for removing star turns from the XI that can cause bafflement and that yields mixed results. Now, as City play Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool (all away) in a pivotal eight-day sequence that starts at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, Rodri, Cancelo, Laporte and Silva are back in favour (for the moment), while Stones and Sterling remain exiled.
Rodri and Cancelo are listed first above because they were victims of the Guardiola axe for the biggest game in the club’s history – and their careers: May’s Champions League final. And because City disappointed, losing 1-0 to Chelsea. And because they were overrun in midfield where Rodri, Guardiola’s first-choice holding operator, would usually stymie attacks. And because Chelsea’s winner came via Kai Havertz, who was allowed to float on to Mason Mount’s ball by Oleksandr Zinchenko whose concentration was errant as the left-back – Cancelo’s usual berth – failed to cover across.
Now, at Chelsea, for the first meeting since the loss at Estadio do Dragão, Stones, if available, waits to discover if he remains a Guardiola footballer non grata or if he will benefit from the manager’s selection vagaries. When dropped a couple of seasons ago the reason was clear: a drastic decline of form that forced Guardiola’s hand, and which had Stones a favourite for the Etihad exit door. Last term came recall and redemption, his central defensive partnership with Rúben Dias key in the title triumph, and the Portuguese defender winning the Football Writers Player of the Year award. Stones, like Dias (and Cancelo), was voted into the Professional Footballers Association Team of the Year and performed admirably in England’s run to the Euro 2020 final. But now he is excluded again.
The Barnsley boy’s extended summer break – plus a leg injury – were Guardiola’s initial cited reasons. But after the Catalan cleared Stones to join up with England – he started two of his country’s three games in early September – on return the 27-year-old was unable to dislodge Laporte for City’s win at Leicester the following weekend. Stones was on the bench while the Spain international started, and though each missed last Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Southampton due to injury, Laporte – who remains a doubt for Chelsea – possesses the shirt.
At the moment, that should say. Because the reason Stones is out of the XI seems as mysterious as Laporte’s own demotion last term when he went from the alpha defender in City’s title triumph of 2018-19, and the following year’s failed defence, to bench-warmer. Laporte lost his place after November’s 2-0 defeat at Tottenham, remained in the cold for the rest of the campaign, but is suddenly an automatic choice again.
Guardiola is fond of positing how if a manager shuffles his pack and the team wins he is a genius; if not he is “killed”. There is a logic here – all any No 1 can do is trust a footballer to perform. Yet what is a manager of Guardiola’s quality paid for if not to make the right selection calls when they truly matter? If City’s petro-buck does not stop with him, why is he employed?
In Porto he got it wrong. Before the May showpiece Cancelo had offered a season-long exhibition of total Pep-left-back play. Here, think Phillip Lahm under Guardiola at Bayern Munich, as the Portuguese emulated the German in a roving infield, schemer role whose passing created havoc, and goals.
Except for against Chelsea. Cancelo was dropped for the less talented Zinchenko, and Rodri, who had been as essential, was out too. The latter was the new Fernandinho – not as combative, and lacking his penchant for technical fouls, but a silky operator as the shield, who purred forward to join attacks in Rolls Royce mode. Of the 1,080 available minutes in City’s 12-game run to the final Rodri played 785 in 10 of these. Cancelo’s number was 604 in nine, while in the Premier League the former’s count was 34 of the 38 games for 2,747, the latter’s 28 for 2,302.
Cue each being bench-warmers as the manager went for all-out attack and, in a comical irony, Sterling, like Laporte-for-Stones this season, found himself on the right end of Guardiola’s fiddling as he was (bafflingly) reinstated after being (surprisingly) dropped two months before.
Last week Guardiola indicated Sterling, who has started only two league games this season, has fallen beneath “the standards” England’s standout Euro 2020 act previously set. The forward found himself in the wilderness when benched for a 5-2 victory over Southampton in mid-March, following a run of five goals in seven outings that ended four games earlier: hardly a dramatic fall-off in numbers and form.
Yet from there Sterling started five of the last nine league matches with three coming after the title was claimed, so was trusted for only two of six “live” games. And he failed to start any of the Champions League quarter-final and semi-final legs before being reinstated for the showpiece, lasting 77 minutes before Guardiola, perhaps regretting the decision, hooked him.
Silva has experienced as confusing a ride. Flying high as Guardiola’s “best – not just in our team” of 2018-19, when the Portuguese made 31 league starts, the next two seasons he was granted only 23 and 24. Silva’s selection in Porto was as much a head-scratcher as Sterling’s, and he was off after 64 minutes, Guardiola finally deciding a defensive midfielder was required – and turning to Fernandinho, not Rodri.
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