Pep Guardiola made it plain this week that Manchester City will be in hot pursuit of a striker when the summer transfer window opens. With the Blues smashing neighbors Manchester United to re-open their six-point lead at the top of the Premier League, with one foot in the Champions League quarter-final and already in the last eight of the FA Cup, adding another expensive player might seem like gilding the lily.
Both this season and last, when Sergio Aguero missed most of the campaign through injury, the Blues have made light of doing without a goalscoring striker, flying in the face of traditional English football wisdom. In fact they have been so good without a striker that United tried to copy them in the derby, going without a striker themselves – and ended up looking like a poor tribute act.
That was forced on them a little by the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani through injury, but the fact they left Marcus Rashford on the bench meant there was an element of choice in the matter.
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But, while Guardiola clearly believes a natural goalscorer would take his team up another level, his midfield general Kevin De Bruyne has made it plain that he quite enjoys the freedom that the Blues’ fluid false nine system brings, and thinks that it lends itself well to City’s possession football. De Bruyne was brilliant in turning City defense into attack during that derby, surging into the space between United’s midfield and defence, linking with false nine Phil Foden and twice arriving late in the box to land killer blows on the Reds.
And he admitted afterwards that he quite likes playing without a striker: “It is a good way to keep the ball in possession. Sometimes there are games where you maybe need a striker, but it depends on how the opponent plays.
“We have performed in so many matches without a striker, so we are used to it. It is whatever they say, but I enjoy the way we play. I think you can see that I like to be in possession of the ball and I like to press forward, this is my style. I am happy.”
City’s possession statistics went through the roof in the second half, partly because they moved up a gear and also because United gave up in the face of unrelenting pressure. From the 65th minute onwards, the Blues had over 83 per cent of the ball, an incredible figure when you consider the score was 3-1, so United should still have been in the game.
But City exploited United’s set-up perfectly in the second half, and with Foden dropping deep in that false nine role, or with Jack Grealish or Joao Cancelo moving inside, the Blues always had an extra body to outnumber the beleaguered United double pivot of Fred and Scott McTominay.
Said De Bruyne: “Not having many strikers, [United] set up in a 4-4-2, really narrow, where the wingers, when they press, it becomes a 4-2-4. They always go man to man against our defenders. It is hard to play out of it.
“But in the second half we found the man in the middle more where we exploited the three against two where it is very hard for McTominay and Fred to cover the spaces, especially when they are getting bigger and bigger. It is very difficult for them and then their team are unable to press in the game.”
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.