By Charles MacDonald-Jones
Leroy Sané’s unfortunate injury against Cardiff City has prompted much discussion and outcry, from Pep Guardiola arguing that all players need better protection by referees and Joe Bennett, the man responsible for the untimely challenge, apologising on social media. But perhaps the most curious talking point to come out of this is Manchester City’s last minute bid for Riyad Mahrez.
While Sané was still fit, City pulled out of a potential deal for Alexis Sanchez, citing that, in the end, £35 million was just too much money to part with, even for a player in his prime. You could see why, too: it would be hard to see exactly where Alexis would fit in the City starting XI, given the insatiable form of both Sané and Raheem Sterling, as well as Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus (when fit) competing for the central position up top.
Now, however, the conversation has changed. Missing out on Alexis to Manchester United, and with Sané now out of action for six weeks, City are turning their attention to Leicester, with City allegedly prepared to offer £65 million plus a player to land Mahrez, who primarily shines on the right for Leicester, while Sané’s regular position is on the left. All of which begs the question: why?
Sané is only out for six weeks. Granted, there are some important games in that time, including the knockout stages of the Champions League and the League Cup final, but this is only one first team player. City have an abundance of attacking firepower up front, as well as plenty of promising academy products. Here are four solutions that Guardiola could look to in case he can’t land his man – or if he just fancies saving a bit of money, instead.
1. Utilise a back three
With Conte’s Chelsea winning the league with a 3-4-3 formation last season, a back three came back into fashion in a big way. Guardiola himself also used variants of a back three last season and earlier this season, occasionally to shoehorn Aguero and Jesus into the same side. If Guardiola were to take a leaf out of Conte’s book and play with a back three – which would be more natural now with the left-footed Aymerick Laporte able to fit in on the left hand side – then wingbacks Kyle Walker and Danilo could provide width, with Sterling and David (or Bernardo) Silva playing just behind Aguero.
2. De Bruyne as a winger
It is easy to forget that De Bruyne hasn’t always been a central midfielder, or “false-8” as he once described his role under Guardiola. He has solely played this position this season, but at Wolfsburg and earlier for City he was often found as a true attacking midfielder, either as a no. 10 or out on the wings.
He often pushes up and delivers crosses from wide areas anyway in this City team, so he could easily provide the width to the attack, with Sterling still drifting in as he is wont to do. This would leave a midfield berth for Ilkay Gundogan, whose performances of late have been more than promising, or even Fabian Delph or Yaya Touré.
3. Sterling staying wide, Bernardo Silva cutting inside
Sterling has started a number of games on the left, with him and Sané often interchanging anyway. He started the 5-0 win against Crystal Palace from this position, in which he scored two goals. City’s two (ostensible) widemen have more been defined by the roles that they play than which side of the pitch they are on.
Sané often holds the width, with Sterling coming inside and acting occasionally as a second striker. Bernardo Silva, a more natural attacking midfielder, is more comfortable drifting inside than staying wide. Sterling, however, can do either. If Sterling stayed wide and Bernardo Silva drifted into the box, City would still maintain their shape and provide much of the same attacking potency.
4. Use academy players
It is shameful that City are considering a £65 million “quick fix” for less than two months, when they have a number of academy graduates at their disposal. Brahim Diaz is a promising attacking midfielder, while Oleksandr Zinchenko is a left winger who has been utilised by Guardiola as a left back in the first team – it is not inconceivable that he could play either as a direct replacement for Sané, or as a wingback instead of Danilo.
And then there is Phil Foden, who lit up last year’s FIFA U17 World Cup, as he won the tournament’s Golden Ball and helped England beat Spain in the final. A proven goal threat at youth level, Guardiola gave him a taste of Champions League action as an experimental City side lost to Shakhtar. Foden was played out of position as a left wingback. What he could add to City’s first team in a more familiar role remains to be seen. If Guardiola is as committed to youth as his reputation suggests, then it should not be too hard to find a replacement for Sané that isn’t a 27 year old Algerian.