When Manchester City travel to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace on Saturday in their FA Cup fourth round tie, we can assume that Pep Guardiola will be asking for a sense of confidence and ninety minutes of passion from his players.
More than anything, Pep will want to see the players execute their ideal style of play. If the coaching staff and the leaders of the team reaffirm and refocus the squad around the principles that made their performance against Tottenham Hotspur possible, an ideal game could be in the cards.
They’ve done well — within single games and across the course of the season — to maintain resolve. Even against Spurs, they didn’t wilt when the visitors worked their way back from a 2-0 deficit. Although mistakes and miscommunication have riddled City, gaining strength at both ends of the pitch will be easier if they match the work-rate they showed last weekend.
Here are three things to watch as the Blues get set to battle Palace:
1 - Significant Options
Will Leroy Sané get another chance to shine? Recently, he has not only directly helped the scoreline, he has created a dual-flank system that gives City immense space and speed of attack.
Sergio Agüero could start out of sheer desire to get a few goals, or he could get some rest ahead of upcoming matches to give Kelechi Iheanacho or Nolito some time.
Kevin De Bruyne or David Silva could get rest with Gabriel Jesus in a central roll to replace one of them. Regardless of where the young Brazilian plays, the FA Cup fixture would be a good time to give him more exposure. It will be interesting to see how his energy will effect the rest of the team.
If Vincent Kompany is healthy, this could be a good moment to return (although Selhurst Park was the site of his last injury). When at his best, Kompany is a defensive gem and it would be great for John Stones and others to begin working with him on decisive steps and awareness of others in the box. The captain could give the team much needed direction.
Whether there’s unorthodox or experimental use of certain players or formations, the starters have to prove their understanding of the system. Since a win is expected from the Blues, Guardiola will likely leave a few regulars in the line up to give direction but everyone has to put out the sheer effort to tip the balance against Palace.
2 - Shots On Target
Whether it’s a matter of stopping crosses, marking men in the box, winning tackles, or making saves, City have to figure out their defensive woes. The Tottenham game made it clear that, even with a 2-0 lead, strength in front of their own goal is lacking.
Palace can be expected to threaten from a number of different angles, meaning the Citizens will have to transition quickly into a more organized defensive shape than they’ve shown in the last several games. It is true that the midfield has played better defensively, keeping the ball further up the pitch, but in six shots on target in that last two games, there have been six goals conceded.
More than just doing the simple thing and blaming Claudio Bravo, City’s work to mark runners in the box and to quickly close passing lanes when opponents reach the final third has to improve. The rear guard for Guardiola needs to be a bit more stubborn in protecting Bravo, or Willy Caballero this Saturday. If they instilled a bit of fear in the eyes of opponents with sure tackles and cohesive play, it would be a major benefit to City’s offense.
3 - On the Front Foot
In no way can the Blues afford to have another game of missed chances. They’ve got to have the same fighting spirit that they have had against some of their fiercest opponents this season. With a dual injection of speed and style in the form of Gabriel Jesus, City opened new doors for their attack but it will require a balanced effort to get the results of their dreams.
In all dimensions of play, Guardiola’s men need to remain on the front foot. They need to be proactive and assertive on defense, networking well in order to keep Palace’s threats at a distance.
In the middle of the field, they need to replicate the energy that they mustered against the Spurs, never underestimating the value of intense pressure without the ball.
The best way for City to relieve pressure and build consistency with their preferred mode of play will be to score goals. Panic doesn’t seem to be affecting the players yet, but a solid string of goals could surely help them mold an approach to rival Chelsea in the Premier League.
Although this match doesn’t figure in the battle for Champion’s League positions, the FA Cup would be a fine piece of silverware to earn. Whether the trophy serves to motivate or the basic will to operate at the highest level gets them clicking on all cylinders, the match against Crystal Palace will be a good opportunity to see how City can shape their reputation.