Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling – why Pep Guardiola will soon face his biggest Man City team selection dilemma
Pep Guardiola is used to making big team selection calls, but if his squad comes through the international break, he has a huge shout to make for Manchester City’s next match.
The Blues boss has a sumptuous array of attacking talents at his disposal, as evidenced by the fact that rising Spain star Ferran Torres, £60million signing Riyad Mahrez and England ace Raheem Sterling all started Sunday’s clash with Liverpool on the bench.
But, with no central striker to pick, as City failed to land prime target Harry Kane in the summer, Guardiola has to choose someone to occupy the central role – and that has become something of a poisoned chalice.
Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Gabriel Jesus, Torres and Sterling have all been asked to fill the slot, and Jack Grealish joined the club for the trip to Anfield, after playing on the left in his previous City games.
The reasoning appeared obvious – with Trent Alexander-Arnold out injured, Jurgen Klopp was forced to play a makeshift right back, and plumped for 35-year-old James Milner.
The former City man has plenty of experience, and may have found it easier against the more subtle skills of Grealish.
But Guardiola was not about to test that theory, and- while picking the same starting XI that won at Chelsea eight dazed earlier – he tweaked it by switching Foden and Grealish.
That put the direct running and pace of the Stockport ace directly up against Milner’s legs, and the Yorkshireman was run ragged.
Foden should have had a penalty from the full back’s clumsy challenge, he teased Milner into a yellow card, and scooted past him to score the first equaliser.
Last week last Chelsea, Foden was asked to play the central role and, while he did it with his usual application and endeavour, plus no little quality, but his was a sacrifice for the team rather than a key role.
At Anfield, it was Grealish’s turn to be the square peg in a round hole, and he simply occupied the central defence to allow Foden on the left and Gabriel Jesus on the right, to do all of the damage.
Foden was exceptional, and turned the game, scoring the first equaliser and creating the second, so Guardiola will be sorely tempted to stick with him on the flank when Burnley go to the Etihad Stadium in the first game after the international break.
The manager has the get-out that City face a tricky trip to Bruges three days after that meeting with the Clarets and then a trip to face high-flying Brighton straight afterwards.
That means rotation, and while Grealish has been impervious to Guardiola’s revolving doors so far – perhaps a consequence of the £100million investment – that will not last.
The international break will be interesting, with Foden, Grealish and Sterling – all vying for one place at City – joining up with England.
Gareth Southgate will not be influenced by Grealish’s price tag, and in the summer he played Foden and Sterling ahead of Grealish in the European Championship.
His take on who plays, and where, will be fascinating, as Sterling was excellent for him in those Euros, Foden was just getting going when he suffered an injury, and Grealish was used sparingly off the bench.
Foden was first choice for City last season, ahead of Sterling, and the decision was made easier for |Guardiola by the act that his England injury spilled over into this season.
At the moment, Sterling’s form makes him the odd man out in Guardiola’s options, but he is too good to remain on the fringes and will no doubt play his way back into real contention.
It is noticeable that Foden was picked to start for the two big games at Chelsea and Liverpool, and then rested for the less important Paris St Germain game inbetween.
But so was Grealish. Guardiola will be able to rotate frequently without losing any quality, but when the big games come around h will have a stiff decision to make on who is the sacrifice in the central role, who takes the influential left-sided role and which two from Foden, Grealish, Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva occupy the attacking midfield slots.
It is a nice selection dilemma to have. But it is still a dilemma.