After a difficult start to the season, Manchester City finally got back on track in the last two games. Back-to-back league victories over Burnley and Fulham meant the team could now move higher up the league table. The 2-0 win over Fulham was also a nice way to mark Pep Guardiola’s 700th game as a manager.
Although he had a fully fit squad to choose from for the starting lineup (except for Sergio Aguero), some key players were left on the bench. Kyle Walker and Aymeric Laporte were the standout names to be rested for the game. John Stones started another Premier League game after partnering Ruben Dias for the 5-0 win against Burnley.
Another clean sheet against the Cottagers shows just how much the Englishman is rebuilding his reputation. In fact, City have conceded just once with him on the pitch in his last seven games.
Stones’ return as a regular in the starting lineup has been a reward for his recent form. The manager revealed this in an interview after the game on Saturday.
“John played really good last two games, he deserved to continue to play. It always depends on performance,” Guardiola told BT Sport.
“The skills and qualities are there or you couldn’t play for Man City. So it’s how you perform every training session every day.”
It remains to be seen if the manager will betray this philosophy to play Laporte alongside Dias against Manchester United. For the last two campaigns, the team has lacked an ideal partner for the Frenchman. He has been one of City’s standout performers. Since he joined the club and many expect him to be one of the first names on the team sheet whenever he is fit.
But it does seem Guardiola is reconsidering his options. Stones’ form, as with the fitness of the whole squad is presenting the Catalan boss with a unique problem. In key games like the visit to Old Trafford on Saturday, which players should start? Does he make selections based on players’ current form and stick with reliable hands?
Yes, the manager can afford to play Stones in games against Burnley and Fulham. With all due respect to these teams, they won’t present the same challenge the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham would. But then, speaking of Spurs, Laporte was preferred ahead of Stones and the result was a 2-0 defeat.
Selecting the strongest team against Man United won’t be easy. The Red Devils are enjoying a good run of form themselves with key players turning up. Nine straight away wins in the Premier League is no easy feat. Paul Pogba scored a screamer against West Ham last weekend on the way to a 3-1 comeback win at the London Stadium.
Bruno Fernandes has been in red-hot form. The Portuguese has been pulling the strings in the midfield and breaking goal and assist records for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. Forwards Marcos Rashford and Mason Greenwood are also scoring goals.
All the more reason City must be sorted out at the back heading into their encounter on Saturday.
Benjamin Mendy has demonstrated good form since returning from injury. Joao Cancelo is a player reborn, but Walker remains Guardiola’s first choice at right-back. Rodrigo has been impressive in midfield. Fernandinho also impressed against Porto.
Up front, Riyad Mahrez is scoring goals but Ferran Torres also needs enough game time to keep his momentum having shown much promise early on. Gabriel Jesus has demonstrated he can be the man to lead the line for the Blues. Yet, Aguero remains the undisputed number one for City when fit. This points to a potential selection headache for the manager.
Hence, Guardiola may have a tricky situation in his hands. He could choose players based on current form or stick with those that have proven to be trustworthy over time. At a time when results have been inconsistent, getting this right could make a huge difference moving forward.