Wouldn’t it be ironic, after two seasons of the false final nine, if Manchester City suddenly ended up with too many strikers?
Compared to the number of wings they would have, that is. If, after the arrival of Erling Haaland and Julian Alvarez, both Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus leave, this is the situation they could find themselves in.
And it must be said, it is something they are prepared for. The idea of Sterling and Jesus leaving in the coming weeks is not a shock to anyone in any position in charge of City: the situation has been developing for at least a year.
The city has a pretty good idea of how the summer will turn out. The team’s first two goals are Leeds United midfielder Calvin Phillips and Brighton left-back Mark Cucurella. They know some (but not all) of Sterling, Jesus, Ilkay Gundogan, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Bernardo Silva could leave. They expect Riyad Mahrez to stay.
These things don’t always turn out quite as expected (Bernardo’s future likely hinges on whether Barcelona can actually raise enough money to spend at least £75m, for example) but it’s all on City’s mind right now. Which means they don’t have any plans to buy another suite.
Suppose Sterling and Jesus left. Chelsea have emerged as the favorite to sign Sterling, whose deal expires next summer. He became concerned about his playing time over a year ago and nothing has happened since that has convinced him that he will get the minutes he wants if he is to stay at the Etihad Stadium. It’s basically the same position as Jesus, who has an offer on the table from Arsenal, although Chelsea are also interested in him.
If good enough offers arrive for both players, City will not stand in their way, even if the prospect of them moving to their domestic rivals is less than ideal.
In this case, City’s wide options would be Phil Foden and Jack Grealish on the left and Mahrez and Cole Palmer on the right. With Haaland and Alvarez in the middle, they still have six players in three positions, two for each position, in a very different way than before.
Pep Guardiola talked about the need to “shake up” the team over a year ago but that hasn’t happened. Suddenly, the front line, in particular, may have a new feel to it very soon. Having the number 9 in the lineup of Haaland and Alvarez, who take great pleasure in attacking the spaces behind the opponent’s defense and diligently scoring goals in the penalty area, will be a new feature after two years of young midfielders and technicians achieving the striker’s brief. By landing in midfield (although new players should do so too).
Haaland’s pace presents City with a new counter-attack threat, as does Alvarez in this regard, although it looks as though Guardiola would lack a large-scale dynamic threat, particularly on the right.
As Sterling himself described it a few months ago, City’s game has slowly changed since Leroy Sane’s day.
“It was more dynamic, more cross: I’m on one side, Leroy Sane on the other; two motorbikes, just zoom in/out zoom in/out. Now, it’s more patient, more ball retention and not dynamic, but both teams kept the ball really well. He scored goals.”
Without Sterling, City wouldn’t have that sheer speed to attack the penalty area from wide and Haaland would be denied another quick teammate to break his side, although it must be said that a large part of the reason Sterling left was that he was not involved in those matches. Many, so it doesn’t look like they’ve really missed out over the past two seasons, given that they’ve won titles in both.
It would be nice to have choice and flexibility, though, and on the right, City will have two players who are widely similar to Mahrez and Palmer – both very comfortable in tight spaces and can turn and spin the edge of the box to explore the openings. They can beat a guy, sure, but not with the blasting kind of Sterling or even Jesus, who’s been used as a winger for the past year or so.
Some City fans were frustrated with both players finishing, but Sterling was the club’s third-best scorer last season and Jesus was joint fifth. Between them, they scored 30 goals in 2021-22.
If Haaland achieves the kind of expected effect, even if most of City’s new signings need time to settle, he could shoulder most of that burden himself given his ability to finish the competition. Alvarez can also help, but it cannot be relied on to make an immediate effect.
Foden and Mahrez have delivered a steady stream of goals over the past two seasons, but others need to be involved as well.
At the age of twenty, Palmer is waiting for a big season. He made 11 appearances for the team last season, but this number would have been likely to grow had he not suffered an injury in January that kept him out of action for several months.
Part of the reason City were comfortable letting Ferran Torres leave is that they believe Palmer, on the back of what they saw in the first half of last season, has a higher ceiling than the Spaniard, which they have done so highly.
At the time, Palmer had a good chance of joining the squad as a Liar Nine (or even as the actual No. 9, as he demonstrated by switching roles in a match against Everton) but his best bet next season is on the right. wing. City expects to play a lot next season.
On the left, City will really need Grealish to start his second season, and that wouldn’t be a huge surprise considering the fortunes of most other signings in the past five or six years, who have really shone after their first year at the club.
Grealish, in theory, fills the role of Sterling from the left, where he can start wide and carry the ball, cut through his powerful right foot, or simply carry the ball to the line and pull it back. City already have plans for Grealish to break in and cross towards the back post in favor of Haaland. More targets would be especially helpful considering those who might be leaving.
Reclaiming Foden to the left is an exciting proposition, given that he looked so vibrant there in his impressive 2020-21 campaign. It must be said that he is deceptively fast, and can dribble other players quickly in a style similar to my tongue. Sources close to him also said he would like to play on the right side, so that gives City another option if, for whatever reason, things don’t work out with Mahrez or Palmer.
Alvarez quantity is unknown in many respects. The River Plate striker will join City in pre-season and his performances over the summer will determine how much he can capitalize on next season.
Stylistically, he’s as decent as the false/traditional No.9 forward that Guardiola wants, but City are wary of the leap in quality between Argentine football and the Premier League. However, the club have developed a growing liking for Alvarez since they reached the deal in January, and Guardiola, in particular, is excited to work with him.
Over the past year he’s played pretty much in the middle but he’s played right wing before that, and he could be an option once summer starts to take shape.
There are many question marks across the front line, but there are certainly enough exciting and high-potential options that could make up a vibrant, goal-free attacking unit – and not just Haaland, one of the most exciting deals in Premier League history.
There is also an option for James McAtee to have a few minutes on the attack. Although he is a midfielder, he is likely to be introduced to the team in a broad role, as Foden and Palmer before him. Several clubs would like to sign him, including Leeds, but both McAtee and City expect a first-team involvement next season. In the meantime, Liam Dilap is expected to go on loan.
So, there are a lot of ways that City’s attacking streak could look like next season. The only sure thing is that things will look completely different.
(Photo: Matt McNelty – Manchester City/Manchester City via Getty Images)