Manchester City kicked off one of the most difficult weeks imaginable for an English team on Saturday. That was at The Emirates Stadium against Arsenal, a team fully expecting to have a good crack at taking City’s title this season and who haven’t lost a Premier League home game since August 2013. The game was thoroughly entertaining and ended up with the Blues taking a very acceptable 2-2 draw.
Wednesday night see’s City head to Bavaria to get their Champions League campaign underway against Bayern Munich. Bayern just happen to be the German champions who will be hoping to claim back the prestigious European trophy they won in 2013, before losing in the semi-final last year. Following that the Blues host Chelsea on Sunday, a team ranked by experts and punters alike as favourites to be crowned English Champions in 2015. If you asked any City fan to hand pick the three hardest games they could possibly play in succession, you wouldn’t get too many deviations from that run.
Naturally, much talk amongst City fans has been about what is the best approach to take into this week. One point raised by a fellow panelist on Imagine FM’s Bluemoon Live last week was that City can’t possibly play their strongest team in each game, and would therefore have to be clever with their squad rotation. That’s a point I’ve seen a lot of people touch upon over the last seven days, and will no doubt continue to be debated in the week to come.
So, if you can’t play your strongest eleven players for each game, what do you do? Having thought about this a little, I’ve decided, simply, there is no such thing as a ‘strongest 11’. Not for City anyway, or other teams in the same bracket in terms of resources and expectations. In modern football, the very notion of a strongest 11 is a flawed concept.
It’s a criticism often leveled at managers when they start a season badly, lose form, or new signings struggle to settle in immediately. You’ll often hear a pundit opine that a manager ‘doesn’t know his best team yet’. Increasingly in the modern game, it strikes me as an easy sound bite that only serves to answer a question nobody asked.
I’m not quite sure when this stock answer to a non-existent problem really started to irritate me, but I now find it to be as vexing as hearing a paid expert use a phrase like “good feet for a big man”. It’s lazy and, increasingly, it’s becoming a cliché.
The concept of a team like City having a strongest 11 is a contradiction to a key theory of the modern game; namely that football is now ‘a squad game’. Top clubs do their best to have two strong players in each position to help them negotiate campaigns that, in cases of extreme success, can take in around 60 games. City are generally regarded as having achieved this and so I don’t accept the idea of having a best first team in the way that we used to.
Instead, we have a squad that can be utilised in different ways depending on the challenges the opposition pose. I’ll use one position to highlight what I mean, taking left back as an arbitrary example. In this position, when both are fit, City can choose between Gaël Clichy and Aleksander Kolarov. At their best, there isn’t a whole lot between them anymore but both have certain strengths and weaknesses. When faced with an opponent that plays with pacey wide players, I’d say Clichy is the better option because he has pace to burn and I think he reads the game better than Kolarov. However, against a team where you think their right side has defensive weaknesses then Pellegrini might be better served selecting Kolarov because he attacks and crosses better than the Frenchman.
That’s just one example of where City do not necessarily have a best player for a position. Instead, they have two players who can be deployed depending on the requirements for any given game. They have that all over the pitch and it means that we don’t necessarily have to worry about making changes to the team from one match to the next and thinking it’s been weakened.
Obviously this doesn’t apply to every position and I’m not talking about it as a perfect science. Some players are clearly standout performers who you would select for every match if possible. That applies to David Silva and Sergio Agüero, to name just two. They’re streets ahead of most footballers in the world and so it follows that they are also ahead of their teammates. Equally, some players are primarily back-up players and if too many of them played in one game, you might consider the team to be a weakened one.
All-in-all, I believe if you work on the premise that City can’t start their best team in all three games this week then you’re looking at it in the wrong way. They can play the team best suited to each occasion – working out what that is the task for Manuel Pellegrini.
written by Richard Burns