Facing a condensed schedule, Pep Guardiola made full use of his squad to lead Manchester City to Premier League glory; Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden and John Stones are among the players to have stepped up and made vital contributions
Wednesday 12 May 2021 11:54, UK
On the final day of the Premier League season, when Manchester City finally get their hands on the trophy, it is difficult to predict what their starting line-up will look like. In fact, it is always difficult. Rotation is the name of the game for Pep Guardiola.
The Manchester City manager has harnessed the power of his squad to navigate the condensed schedule this season. In the Premier League alone, he has made 120 line-up changes at an average of nearly four per game.
The approach has come under scrutiny at times. Most notably when he changed eight players for Manchester City's FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea, three days after they had overcome Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarter-finals.
But Guardiola has never wavered. "They are human beings, they are not machines," he explained in April. "I rotate and I'm a genius - 'well done, Pep' - but when we lose people say, 'why rotate? You have to play the players like normal'. But it's unsustainable."
Guardiola has enviable resources, of course. But it's his rotation policy which has enabled him to keep his players fresh during a season in which they have fought on four fronts. An unprecedented quadruple proved beyond them but a treble is within reach.
The squad is replete with talent but it is a small group - only Crystal Palace, Leeds and Aston Villa have used fewer players than City in the Premier League this season - and there are no passengers.
Everybody has played their role and while the £60m deal to sign Ruben Dias has undoubtedly been a significant factor in this season's success, it has also been a year in which Guardiola has found solutions among the players he already had.
One of the most intriguing features of City's success is that much of it has been achieved without a conventional striker on the pitch.
Sergio Aguero's injuries have limited him to only a handful of starts and his deputy, Gabriel Jesus, has often struggled in front of goal. As a result, two players who scored 46 times between them last season have a combined total of only 17 this time around.
Guardiola's side have made up the shortfall, in part, by sharing the goals out - Manchester City have had 16 different scorers in the Premier League this season, the most in the division - but also by finding more of them from unexpected sources.
Before this season, Ilkay Gundogan had never scored more than six times in a campaign dating right back to the beginning of his career with Nurnberg in Germany. When City needed something different, however, the midfield metronome became a goal poacher.
The 30-year-old has found the back of the net 16 times in total this season, with 14 of his goals coming in the three-month period between December and March during which City pulled clear of the chasing pack in the Premier League.
Gundogan was still lining up in midfield during that period, but in a more advanced role, with less involvement in City's build-up play and more touches in and around the opposition's box. There, in front of goal, his composure and precision were put to good use.
Gundogan's new role demanded adjustments further back but Guardiola found a solution there, too, instructing full-back Joao Cancelo to tuck into midfield when City had possession.
Gundogan described Cancelo's movement into midfield as a "trigger" for him to bomb forward in an interview with Sky Sports in March and their strong understanding - evident when Cancelo set up Gundogan's first goal in the 5-0 win over West Brom in January - was vital in making the system work.
Gundogan is not the only one whose output has dramatically increased.
Phil Foden has always been viewed as David Silva's successor and his contribution this season has certainly helped ensure the Spanish magician has not been missed.
But it's on the left-hand side of the attack, rather than in midfield, that he has come of age.
When he set up Riyad Mahrez's second goal against Paris Saint-Germain from that position last week, he became the first City player to reach double figures for both goals and assists this season.
His totals - 14 goals and 10 assists - are his highest in a single campaign since his Manchester City breakthrough and his playing time has gone the same way. He is already up to 47 appearances in all competitions - nine more than in the whole of last season.
He played a peripheral role in the Premier League at times in the first half of the season, not starting a single game in the competition between mid-October and mid-December, but he has always been a key figure in the Champions League.
In fact, he has played more minutes in Europe than any other outfield player at City this season. It would be a huge surprise if he didn't start again when City face Chelsea in the final later this month.
It reflects his growing importance to Guardiola.
The Catalan's careful management of Foden's playing time has frustrated some in recent years but it has all been building up to this. The 20-year-old has benefitted from being bedded in slowly, becoming one of the side's most influential players at exactly the moment City needed him.
There has been none of the burnout or injury problems that often afflict young players given too much, too soon - Jack Wilshere being a prime example - and City are feeling the benefits.
Foden's outstanding performances have ensured Raheem Sterling's uncharacteristic inconsistency has not been costly. The academy graduate has happily taken on more responsibility and proved himself more than capable of stepping in.
Remarkably, City have won the last 22 games he has started.
The signing of Dias was a gamechanger. At last, Manchester City had found a replacement for Vincent Kompany. In fact, on the evidence of his recent performances, the Portuguese might be even better.
But Dias has not transformed Manchester City's defence on his own.
John Stones only made 16 starts in the whole of last season. It appeared his Manchester City career was winding towards an unceremonious conclusion as he struggled to recapture his best form.
But the 26-year-old has been outstanding alongside Dias since re-establishing his place in the side before Christmas.
The pair only conceded one goal in the first 13 games they started together and the clean sheet against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League semi-final second leg - secured thanks to their outstanding defensive performances - was the 16th shut-out in 24 games together.
Nathan Ake, a £40m signing from Bournemouth, has had to settle for a bit-part role and Aymeric Laporte has found himself watching on from the outside more often than he would like, too.
But Guardiola has been careful to keep them happy. Indeed, while Laporte's playing time has been reduced, his contribution has still been vital - most notably when he popped up with the winning goal in the Carabao Cup final triumph against Tottenham.
It is just another example of how Guardiola harnessed the power of his squad in a uniquely challenging season. The Manchester City manager has more talent at his disposal than anyone else - but it's how he used it that made the difference.