Pep Guardiola has been roundly criticized by some sections of the Manchester City support for the team he fielded at Wembley. But apart from one big call, the Blues boss was left with very little alternative to putting out a side that lacked several big names and was on the back foot for the first 45 minutes.
It is understandable when you have taken out a second mortgage in order to fund an FA Cup semi-final trip, to roll up at Wembley to see a team that was, apart from Joao Cancelo, Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and arguably John Stones, not City’s first-choice XI. But the cold, hard reality is that Guardiola is not paid to make emotional decisions, based on the desperation to concede nothing to a strong rival, or to consider the hardships of fans traveling to London.
He has to take a longer view, in the interests of his team and the club, and that is exactly what he did. He was left counting his wounded after the bruising midweek encounter with Atletico Madrid, with Kyle Walker still wearing a protective boot at Wembley and Kevin De Bruyne – with stitches still in his ankle – only named among the substitutes.
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With Rodri clearly feeling the pace after playing the full 270 minutes – two Champions League quarter-final legs against Atletico and a league clash with Liverpool – during the preceding 11 days, there were few options for the manager. Looking at the subs’ bench, it is difficult to see what those critical fans expected different. Risking De Bruyne further damaging an ankle gash that had him limping in Madrid would have been irresponsible and ineffective.
Playing Ruben Dias in a high-tempo game against world-class opposition for his first game in almost two months, would have been equally feckless. On form, the pairing of Nathan Ake and John Stones was the best, and both played well at Wembley. The lack of full-backs meant that Aleks Zinchenko was drafted in, but again the Ukraine international has performed extremely well when he has played this season, and was one of City’s better players at Wembley.
Likewise, Fernandinho, who added guile and physicality to midfield and did nothing to suggest he should not have started. Ilkay Gundogan’s absence was puzzling, as was the fact that a clearly leggy Bernardo Silva was asked to start, but Guardiola is privy to the physical stats that we do not get to see. He had his reasons for it.
The attacking quartet of Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus were underwhelming in that opening 45 minutes, but they suffered largely because City failed to get out of their own final third as Liverpool, refreshed after resting seven key players in their midweek game, swarmed all over them. Trent Alexander-Arnold has crowed that no team has ever swarmed all over City in the way Liverpool did at Wembley, conveniently ignoring the fact that this was a very different City team, in personnel, in fitness and, most importantly of all, in the capacity of their goalkeeper.
And that is perhaps the one big call that Guardiola regrets. He had said on the eve of the game that he was considering abandoning his policy of playing Zack Steffen in cup games for this match.
In the end, I have stuck with Steffen, with good reason, but with disastrous results. To abandon Steffen at that point would have been a big vote of no confidence in the stand-in – you never know when a number two keeper might be needed in the remaining games this season.
Jurgen Klopp took that decision, with Caoimhin Kelleher stepping aside to allow number one Alisson to start. Those two decisions cost City the game, in the end, but hindsight is a precious thing.
It was not just Steffen’s moment of brain freeze that cost City. As Guardiola pointed out, Ederson had almost committed the same alarming error six days earlier in the 2-2 league draw.
It was the fact that Steffen was so uncomfortable with the ball at his feet, right from his very first touch, when he sent a pass intended for Zinchenko sailing out of touch, yards over his head. With Liverpool targeting the reserve keeper, his kicking game was sorely tested, and he found wanting.
They had been warier of Ederson in the league game, apart from Diogo Jota’s rush that saw him kick the turf and recover in the nick of time. They had good reason to be cautious with Ederson, who has repeatedly shown he can ping passes from his own six-yard box to unmarked players on halfway with uncanny accuracy, or deliver slide rule balls to de Bruyne, Bernardo or Gundogan to bypass the first line of Liverpool pressing.
Liverpool quickly realized Steffen had no such capacity and was restricted to simple balls into Rodri, facing his own goal, or to inaccurately lofted passes to his full-backs. With Steffen in goal, City were reduced to ten outfield players, and Liverpool pushed high, confident of not paying any price for their boldness.
That is why the front three were starved of possession, the back five were struggling to get out, and the midfield was left trying to plug gaps in their own ranks rather than exploit those of the opposition. Guardiola talked up a potential fourth meeting of the season with Liverpool, in the Champions League final when, his fingers crossed, Ederson will be back between the sticks and De Bruyne, Bernardo, Rodri, Dias, Laporte, and Walker will all be both available and in full fitness.
You suspect he would relish the chance of another attempt at them.
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