Five points in it, 12 games to go – the Premier League could be heading for a classic dash to the finish line in the title race.
Manchester City’s battling 2-0 win over Champions League-chasing Newcastle United felt massive for a good couple of hours until Arsenal’s unbelievable last-gasp heroics to beat Bournemouth 3-2 maintained the Gunners’ advantage at the summit.
Much like the late heist Mikel Arteta and his side pulled off at Aston Villa a couple of weeks ago, it was the sort of win that screamed of a title triumph being written in the stars – a pre-destined end to a near two-decade wait in north London.
Earlier in the season, it was City who felt inevitable. Erling Haaland’s record-shredding scoring feats were a big reason for this but not the only one.
The hulking Norway striker was supported by arguably the finest collection of attacking midfield creatives in world football. How could that combination possibly fail?
Well, amid tactical tweaks to fit Haaland into City’s free-flowing style, Kevin De Bruyne, Jack Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez have all had up-and-down seasons to some extent.
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After the Newcastle game, Pep Guardiola said City’s matches against Crystal Palace in the Premier League, RB Leipzig in the Premier League and Burnley in the FA Cup prior to the March international break will “define our season” in terms of getting them in position to fight for trophies on three fronts.
If they chalk off a trio of wins, getting most of Haaland’s supply line over the run-in could prove decisive. Here, the Sporting News looks at a season of fluctuating fortunes for City’s support attackers and how they’re playing right now.
5. Kevin De Bruyne
Before the end of 2022/23, it is entirely plausible that Haaland smashes the Premier League’s single-season scoring record, De Bruyne sets a new best mark for most assists in a campaign and City end up winning the square root of nothing at all.
De Bruyne scooped player-of-the-year honours in each of City’s title-winning runs over the past two seasons and remains their most important player. However, his form is wildly uneven right now and there are examples of Guardiola’s team being better off with him not on the pitch recently. He was benched for games against Tottenham and Bournemouth that both brought four-goal victories and his withdrawal in favour of Silva, who promptly scored City’s second goal, was decisive against Newcastle.
“Always the standards of Kevin are the sky. Everyone knows his level,” Guardiola said on Saturday when asked if he had any concerns over his star playmaker. “In one week Kevin has another opportunity to show his quality. He was delighted for the victory we had, this is what we have to do. Come back to principles, work hard and everything will come back without any effort. Do it to your usual quality, your best and that’s all.”
Much can be made of De Bruyne’s propensity to give away possession, his pass completion rate of 78% in the Premier League this season is significantly below every other player on this list, who track between 85-89%. However, that is the lot of players carrying the greatest creative burden, who tackle the killer passes at the extreme end of the risk/reward spectrum.
When it comes to deciding who is City’s creative fulcrum, De Bruyne is out in front with daylight in second. He has 12 Premier League assists this season, having created 78 chances and 24 ‘big chances’ as per Opta. Silva is next in this quintet with five assists and the others have four apiece. The Portugal international is also next in terms of chances created but way down on 25. None of the others are in double figures for big chances.
Just imagine what happens if De Bruyne starts playing well.
Form rating: 5/10
4. Riyad Mahrez
Mahrez was an unused substitute at the weekend, leaving Guardiola to face an enquiry from an Algerian journalist who was somehow at once polite and disgruntled. The City manager’s selections, he was told, are a source of anger in the North African nation when Mahrez does not make the cut.
“I’m so sorry for the Algerian people, it’s not my intention to make people feel sad,” Guardiola replied. “We have other players, for example, Julian [Alvarez] is from Argentina and they will always be sad if he doesn’t play.
“I have a huge opinion of Riyad, he is an exceptional player but at this moment Phil has one rhythm higher, Jack gives us a lot with longer possessions like Bernardo and his commitment to receive [the ball] and be aggressive against the back four.
“Riyad in the last two months had been one of the most important players up front, he won the game against Spurs, every action of him created [problems] for the opponents and [chances] for Erling, for Kevin, for Gundo, for everyone.”
Mahrez endured an underwhelming first part of the season but came back from his World Cup break revitalised and in top form. That certainly placed him in a minority during a fraught period for Guardiola’s squad. Wins over Chelsea and Spurs kept City clinging on to Arsenal’s coattails — Mahrez scored three goals across those matches and is a big reason why we still have a title race.
As Guardiola said, it’s not exactly a case of his form tailing off. He scored City’s goal in their 1-1 draw against RB Leipzig in the first leg of a Champions League last-16 tie at the end of last month. His 1,063 Premier League minutes are the least of the quintet this season by some way, but the 32-year-old has shown himself to be a clutch performer in the biggest Champions League games. Perhaps that’s where his responsibility will lie for the rest of the campaign.
Form rating: 7/10
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3. Bernardo Silva
Should Silva even be on this list (for clarity, Ilkay Gundogan isn’t on account of a silky smooth level of consistency in 2022/23 that has been beyond most of his teammates)? On one hand, he has scored in each of his past two Premier League outings, on the other he started the first of those as a hybrid left-back.
“Bernardo has never been a top, top scorer with top assists but he helps us to play better,” Guardiola said. “You want statistics, go to big datas and, congratulations, you can write a big article about that.”
Challenge accepted, Pep. According to Opta — surely the “big datas” Guardiola has in his sights here, Bernardo is to City’s tenacity what De Bruyne is to their creativity. His 95 recoveries place him out in front, with Grealish the next best on 83. With 41 tackles and 13 interceptions in the Premier League this season, Silva has double any of his four selected teammates on those metrics.
This can in part be explained by him being asked to fill deeper roles, but he has also featured as a right-winger and, on Saturday, a match-winning number 10 this term.
What a move for our 1000th #PL goal at home! ⚡️@Sure | #MoveOfTheMatch | #ad pic.twitter.com/rn1kdvuZDE
— Manchester City (@ManCity) March 5, 2023
“There are things that people don’t come to in the datas,” Guardiola continued. “It is something unique. Bernardo is unique to make all of us play better, be aggressive in our rhythm. The game is so quick in some moments, sometimes necessary, sometimes not. Bernardo helps us to play in a different pausa [tempo,] then after make an explosion. Bernardo is unique in the world to help us do this.”
This love affair between player and coach might be about to come to an end, however. The opening weeks of the season were dogged by rumours of a departure to either Barcelona or Paris Saint-Germain and a January interview with Record saw him admit to the appeal of a “new project” as the 28-year-old refused to commit his future to City. A subsequent spell out of the side may or may not have been coincidental, but Guardiola will be keen to fully harness Silva and his unique talents during the run-in.
Form rating: 7/10
2. Jack Grealish
Truth be told, Grealish is still not racking up the sort of numbers you might expect for a £100 million player, with three goals and four assists in the Premier League this season. However, six of those goal involvements have come since the World Cup, where the former Aston Villa hero has started 10 of City’s 12 league matches.
His game-breaking strike in the 3-1 win at Arsenal last month gave Guardiola’s most consistent attacking player of 2023 the decisive big-game goal he craved, having opened the scoring at Old Trafford before City went down to a controversial 2-1 derby defeat.
“I feel like my form has improved and I feel like I am playing with confidence now,” he said on the eve of the Newcastle match where he was once again a vital cog in a City victory. “The goals and the assists are coming and I am doing it in the big games. I think it is important that I am getting goals and assists in important situations.
“I can’t put my finger on it, I just feel really confident at the moment, I feel good.”
🧠 Life under Pep Guardiola
⚽️ Adapting to Manchester City
💙 Relationship with Erling Haaland
Jack Grealish talks openly about his time in Manchester with @rioferdy5… pic.twitter.com/p2k2rw1Gj7
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 4, 2023
“It is always nice to get goals and assists but to do it in goals that mean a lot, like when you’re drawing and it puts your team 2-1 up is different to when you are winning 4-0 and you score to make it 5-0. They all count. I feel like I am contributing in these big games so hopefully it can continue.”
Grealish still has work to do in that regard but the big change in 2023 has been a player evidently looking like he knows he belongs in a star-studded squad he once seemed in awe of.
Form rating: 8/10
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1. Phil Foden
For all Grealish’s impressive performances, a resurgent Foden bettered his goal tally in all competitions this season in the past week alone, netting in the Premier League wins over Bournemouth and Newcastle either side of a brace in the FA Cup against Bristol City.
Foden admits he has had to come through one of the trickiest periods of his still fledgling career, grappling with poor form and a nagging foot problem. His explosive solo goal against Newcastle proved the 22-year-old is back with a vengeance as the player who can give City an x-factor over the final weeks of the season.
“The goal was a brilliant action from Phil. We got lucky with the deflection but he was aggressive like he always is and we have missed that a little bit this season,” Guardiola said after Sven Botman’s last-ditch slide could not stop Foden from scoring at the end of a gamboling dribble. “Phil has this special ability to have the ball, where is the goal and go there.
“When I spoke to Phil during the year when at that moment he had the ball and passed back, passed back, ‘you feel you don’t have the confidence to do it?’. I expected that, it’s normal. What happened to Phil is absolutely what should happen. He arrived here at 17 training with us, national team, World Cup, winning titles and every moment he was better than the year before. You arrive at a moment when you go down. He struggled with his ankle. Accept it don’t blame the other ones, don’t blame the manager or the club or your mates.”
Phenomenal Phil! 🤩 pic.twitter.com/8PvUGKFMjc
— Manchester City (@ManCity) March 4, 2023
Despite a mixed campaign for club and country that has included a hat-trick in a 6-3 derby win over United and starting England’s World Cup campaign on the bench, Foden’s nine Premier League goals far outstrip the other players on this list. It’s a similar story with his minutes-per-goal figure of one every 150 minutes. Mahrez is the next most prolific on 212.6, while Grealish, De Bruyne and Silva all tally in excess of 400. When it comes to the player best equipped to share the scoring burden with Haaland between now and May, there is an obvious answer
“It’s completely normal,” Guardiola reiterated, regarding Foden’s downturn. “The bad moments, this too shall pass. [When they happen] during 90 minutes, this too shall pass.” By that logic, Arsenal can’t keep scoring injury-time winners forever. City’s challenge is to have enough of their main creative threats firing on all cylinders when that time comes.