Pep Guardiola’s strongest Man City XI revealed by Liverpool, Chelsea and PSG games – Manchester Evening News

Pinning down Pep Guardiola’s thoughts on his strongest Manchester City team is like plaiting fog.

Direct questions on the matter will usually be met with a world-weary sigh, and more oblique approaches will see the Blues boss trot out the fact that it depends on all kinds of variables – individual form, the opposition, the game-plan, and so on.

He will also point out that the modern game is squad-based, and that rotation is the key – and you need sufficient quality in the Blues squad to ensure that rotation does not affect the quality and effort of the team.

But there are moments in a season when a manager’s true thinking on his strongest starting XI are revealed, regardless of the opposition.

The last week before this international break was one such moment for Guardiola.

Seasons never turn on three matches in the space of eight days in Autumn, but when the fixture schedule threw up Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool in quick succession, it was always going to be a telling moment in the Blues’ campaign.

Flunk it, and they would be playing catch-up in the months to come, with doubts about their own effectiveness and endurance.

Come through it unscathed, and they would re-establish themselves as favourites to defend the Premier League crown.

By winning at Chelsea, playing well without reward at PSG and then showing guts as well as extreme class in a terrific 2-2 draw at Anfield, the latter is the case, and optimism is the flavour of the month among fans who are often quick to fear the worst.

Guardiola knew the significance of those three games, and he responded by fielding the exact same team in the two domestic games – which were both far more important than the Champions League group game wedged in between.

The two changes he made for the trip to PSG were also a nod to pragmatism – Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez replacing Phil Foden and Gabriel Jesus.

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Foden was rested because his 87 minutes at Chelsea three days earlier was his first full game of the season after a tricky foot injury, while Mahrez was picked on the basis of his three goals against PSG in last season’s semi-final.

Guardiola acknowledged afterwards that being without Foden and Jesus had affected the quality of their game without the ball, and that is why they were quickly restored for the trip to Anfield.

But in an age where Guardiola’s rotation is often bewildering in frequency and scale, the fact that he asked nine players to start all three games is hugely indicative of how he sees his strongest team.

That will change as the season progresses, no doubt – it always does, as injuries bite, form ebbs and flows, and tactics adapt.

Guardiola stuck to the same team for the Chelsea and Liverpool games despite only being without the injured Aleks Zinchenko and Ilkay Gundogan, and suspended Ben Mendy, the latter being effectively third-choice left-back these days in any case.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 03: Joao Cancelo of Manchester City takes a throw in during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield on October 03, 2021 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Matt McNulty – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

With Joao Cancelo in excellent form – although his attacking contribution has been much better than his sometimes questionable defending – Zinchenko is back to being a deputy.

Only a fully fit Gundogan would have given the manager pause for thought – and in Bernardo Silva’s current world-beating form, the likelihood is that Germany star Gundogan would have stepped in for PSG, to give the non-stop Portuguese a well-earned break, but would have been back on the bench at Anfield.

With Cancelo covering, and thriving, at left-back, Kyle Walker has no competition at right-back, while Ruben Dias has continued imperiously as first-choice centre back.

The fact that Aymeric Laporte started all three games has possibly dismissed the unhappiness he felt last season when John Stones’ form meant he could not get a look-in. Laporte’s left foot offers better balance in that area, and now it is Stones who has to bide his time.

Rodri has his critics among the City fans, some thinking he is too slow, and actually deadens the pace of the team’s build-up. But he has shown his quality in the last three games, reminding Guardiola of what he was missing in the Champions League final when he started without a bona fide defensive midfielder.

With Fernandinho being patchy in his appearances so far, Rodri is undoubtedly the man in charge in that position.

City fans have been thanking their stars that Bernardo did not leave this summer, as the Portugal midfielder has been back to his best in three big games, notwithstanding his incredible open-goal miss in Paris!

He probably would not have played in that game had Gundogan been fit, but there is little doubt that he is currently the first name on the teamsheet, as a tireless defender and ebullient attacker rolled into one.

De Bruyne has long been immovable from the strongest City XI, and even at the momentum when he is still not firing on all cylinders, he is capable of big moments in matches, as we saw at Anfield.

Jesus is the surprise package in Guardiola’s current best XI, after being seemingly on his way out in the transfer window, and being spoken of as a makeweight in the move for Harry Kane.

His displays on the right wing have been exceptional, and he offers a work rate and team ethic that few others can match – plus he scored the winner at Chelsea and created the first equaliser at Liverpool, so he is influencing outcomes as well.

Foden was the other player rested in midweek, but two starts against Chelsea and Liverpool underline his status – he was asked to play the sacrificial central role at Stamford Bridge and did it well enough, but then revelled in being back on his favoured left-hand side to destroy James Milner, and score one and make one at Anfield.

His effectiveness down the left-hand side on Sunday eclipsed anything Jack Grealish has managed so far, and the £100million buy was shifted to the false nine role to allow Foden a free run at James Milner’s ageing legs.

Grealish has also started all three games, but there are big decisions upcoming for Guardiola, over who takes the left-handed role and who plays centrally.

All of which leaves Raheem Sterling, Ferran Torres, Riyad Mahrez, Fernandinho, Gundogan, Zinchenko, John Stones and Nathan Ake waiting for their chance, and feeding off scraps in the meantime.

PEP’S CURRENT STRONGEST XI: Ederson, Walker, Dias, Laporte, Cancelo; Rodri, Bernardo, De Bruyne; Jesus, Foden, Grealish

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