Manchester City were knocked out of the Carabao Cup on Wednesday night for the first time in five years. In-form West Ham gave the Blues a run for their money. Not even the fielding of a strong line-up that included talisman Kevin De Bruyne could make the difference for City.
The likes of Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Fernandinho, Kyle Walker, and John Stones started the game, underlining how seriously Pep Guardiola took the fixture.
Yet, the team was unable to break down the home side. David Moyes has turned the Hammers into one of the best teams in the English top flight. Top teams now find it extremely difficult getting past the London side. On the balance of play, Manchester City did not deserve a win in regular time.
That’s because they were not at their best. Usually, there’s a player that makes the difference for the Cityzens - Kevin De Bruyne. But the midfielder is currently struggling for form.
After suffering injuries in the Champions League final and Euro 2020 with Belgium, De Bruyne is yet to regain his top form. Although the 30-year-old has been City’s best player for several seasons, his performance is well below his usual high standards at the moment.
The manager admitted as much when asked about the midfielder’s form after the West Ham game.
“Kevin [De Bruyne] came back from important injuries in the last part of the season and was so important vs Liverpool, Chelsea and Brugge. He was there as always. Day by day he will get his best form,” Guardiola said.
At a time when many other players have stepped up, keeping out the Belgian from the starting XI in important games is now a possibility. However, that presents a dilemma for the manager. It takes playing regularly to regain form. But that will mean keeping out another player currently in form.
At the moment, a front three of Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish is the strongest. Rodri takes the base of the midfield while Bernardo Silva is unstoppable. That leaves space for only one more player in the middle of the pitch.
With Ilkay Gundogan now back to full fitness and even scoring in his last Premier League game against Brighton, the manager has to make a difficult decision. Who should be left on the bench between Gundogan and De Bruyne?
How do you keep the reigning PFA Player of the Year on the bench?
Not too long ago, it used to be that De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling were the first names on the team sheet. And that’s because they were the most influential in the team, often settling difficult games all on their own.
The Englishman has fallen down the pecking order as a result of a loss of form. He has gone on to express his unhappiness with the situation even threatening to leave if things do not improve. Keeping De Bruyne out of the starting lineup, especially in important games, can produce a similar reaction.
Even if the Belgian takes it in his stride and trusts the manager’s decision, his lack of regular game time could worsen his form.
So Guardiola has to choose between two unpalatable options. Play an out of form De Bruyne to keep him happy and help him rediscover form at the risk of results like the one witnessed at West Ham. Or bench him and risk incurring his wrath as his form deteriorates further. That may end up hurting the team in the long run.
In the end, the players may need to share the minutes. So Guardiola will keep rotating to keep his players happy and improving.