Pep Guardiola has evolved Man City squad so four underperformers are irrelevant – Joe Bray

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This week last season, Manchester City took a big step to taking control of the Premier League title as they demolished West Brom at the Hawthorns, in a game that saw their brilliant form peak at the mid-point of a 15-game winning run.

City would go on to win another eight games, to make themselves overwhelming favorites for the title by the time they lost to Manchester United in March. The West Brom route saw Ilkay Gundogan and Joao Cancelo put on a masterclass as City shrugged off various injury and Covid issues to win 5-0.

After United’s shock home defeat to Sheffield United, City went a point ahead of their rivals with a game in hand, and having finally moved into top spot for the first time that season, they never let that lead slip and ran away with the title.

Fast forward 12 months, and City are in an even better position, with a 12-game winning run giving them a current nine-point lead over Liverpool, albeit Jurgen Klopp’s side have a game in hand.

Still, compared with last season and the year before, it’s an enviable position and City will draw on previous experiences to ensure they don’t let their rivals back into the race.

So while City are in a better position, and have more points than the equivalent stage last season, it’s an unusual quirk that their best performers from last season are underperforming compared to 2020/21.

Last season, Gundogan was a surprise top scorer, helped by his incredible form during the winning run, while Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden were also in the top three scorers. Kevin De Bruyne was the run-away top assister as players like Bernardo Silva and Gabriel Jesus were steady, but below their best.

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Fast forward a year, and the bulk of City’s goals are coming from very different players. Mahrez, Jesus and Bernardo are on course to better their tallies for last season, while Gundogan, Sterling, Foden and De Bruyne need strong second halves of the campaign to match their goal involvements from last year.

In 2020/21, City players scored 80 goals in the league, with 56 assists for teammates. This season, as a team, they are on 53 goals and 35 assists. With 60 per cent of the season gone, City have already registered 66 per cent of last term’s involvements, suggesting they will better their record from the runaway title in 2021.

Curiously, however, the above players are lagging behind the rate of goals and assists they will need to match their records from the previous campaign.

It was always going to be hard for Gundogan to match his 13 goals since last season, and he has just 37 per cent of his total league involvements this year compared to last. Sterling has 44 per cent, Foden has 57 per cent, and De Bruyne — who has missed a fair portion of the season with injury — is at 44 per cent of his total goals and assists since last season.

With just 40 per cent of the season remaining, those figures show other players have stepped up in comparison.

Bernardo is the player with the biggest improvement, already matching his eight goal involvements from last season, with seven goals and one assist this term compared to two goals and six assists the year before. Mahrez has continued his consistent form, and is two thirds of the way to his 2020/21 total, while Jesus’ switch to the wing has seen him get three quarters of last season’s total, adding eight assists to his game.

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Further back, Rodri and Fernandinho have matched their goal involvements from last season already, while the defense as a collective are already ahead of the 2020/21 tally with eight goals and nine assists compared to 11 goals and five assists across the whole league campaign last year. Joao Cancelo’s five assists and the five goals between Aymeric Laporte and Ruben Dias have helped that stat, showing City can finally call upon goals from all over the pitch.

It’s not a problem if Gundogan, Sterling and Foden are not quite at their levels from last season, because Bernardo, Jesus and Mahrez are stepping up. With the more defensive-minded players chipping in with important goals too, that gives City the chance to play Jack Grealish into form and replace Ferran Torres’ eight goal involvements last year.

And De Bruyne might struggle to catch Jesus in the assists charts, but his return to full fitness and subsequent return to the goals shows that there is room for those ‘underperforming’ City players to kick on in the second half of the season.

It’s a trait of Pep Guardiola’s teams that while the squad may stay fairly similar, they are always evolving. They are discovering new ways to play, and new ways to cope with key absences. There is always someone ready to step up if a teammate isn’t providing, and that’s why they are in a stronger position than January 2021, even if some statistics suggest they aren’t reaching the same levels.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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