What new can be said about Manchester City’s brilliant attack? Perhaps that, despite a less-than-ideal start to the Premier League season, they have still scored 34 goals in their first 11 games. At this rate they will have 117 by the season’s end, surpassing the all-time 38-game top flight record of 106 that they set during Pep Guardiola’s first title-winning campaign.
Nobody’s saying they will break that record again. Their opening 11 games have included an 8-0 win over Watford which skews the projections slightly and we are about to enter the most gruelling stage of the season, when victories come hard-earned. Still, City’s attack has clearly lost none of its potency. If they do defend their title, it will be down to simply out-scoring their rivals, and a former Liverpool player will have played an integral part.
Raheem Sterling is now one of world football’s elite attacking players. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, he has scored 62 goals in all competitions and only one of those was a penalty. No Premier League player has scored more goals from open play over the last two campaigns. Compare this to his first year at the Etihad under Manuel Pellegrini, when he scored only six league goals and struggled to adapt to life in Manchester.
Sterling believes he personally deserves a little more credit for his development over the years since rather than it all simply being attributed to Guardiola’s arrival, but the impact of the Catalan on his game cannot be understated. In Pep’s City: The Making of a Superteam, Guardiola tells Pol Ballus and Lu Martin how Sterling had picked up several bad habits during his formative years, which included standing still when receiving the ball.
Guardiola took inspiration from his playing days during Barcelona’s ‘Dream Team’ era and specifically Romario. Believing that Sterling possessed similarly explosive acceleration to his old team-mate, he instructed Sterling to receive the ball on the half-turn. “If he’s found a space about three metres off his defender but he’s half-turned towards the goal then his sprint takes him much more quickly to a space where he can shoot,” explains Mikel Arteta.
Sterling is not the only City attacker who has had to change his game to please Guardiola. Even Sergio Aguero cannot survive on goals alone, though 105 in three-and-a-bit years certainly helps his case. Guardiola demanded more from his striker, specifically better pressing and use of possession, and Aguero would eventually respond despite some early teething problems. He had to or his City career would have abruptly ended.
As a result, he has become one of English and European football’s most complete forwards: capable of harrying opponents and creating opportunities for team-mates – not unlike Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino – while losing none of his own scoring prowess. The trade-off you would expect when an individualist becomes a team player has not happened. Aguero finished last season with more goals than in any other campaign under Guardiola.
In many ways, the player that Guardiola wanted Aguero to emulate was Roberto Firmino. Liverpool’s focal point works selflessly on and off-the-ball, usually for the benefit of others. “Being skilled like Bobby is one thing,” Jurgen Klopp said back in August. “Mix it up with the attitude he puts in, that’s unbelievable. Skill-wise, being there, passing in between and stuff like that, for sure there are some players. Not really a lot but some. But to mix those? Wow, it’s exceptional.”
When Georginio Wijnaldum was forced to deputise for Firmino in the Camp Nou in May, he ended that 3-0 defeat to Barcelona wondering exactly how his team-mate’s workload was humanly possible. He called to Firmino across the dressing room: “What the heck are you doing in that position?! It’s unbelievable! It’s so intense!” Klopp saw this as the greatest testament to Firmino possible. “That was probably the biggest respect you can get. When you play the position once and you see that.”
Firmino’s work would be all for naught, though, if not for wide forwards to attack the spaces his movement creates. Like Sterling, Sadio Mané has entered the conversation regarding future Ballon d’Or winners after following 26 goals in all competitions last year with another 10 in the opening months of the new season. It is difficult to disagree with Naby Keita when he says that his team-mate is “living his greatest moments”, even if his preparations for Sunday have been dominated by one topic.
Mané denies Guardiola’s claim, made on Saturday, that he dived to win a penalty against Leicester City last month. He is right that neither that incident, nor the penalty he won against Tottenham Hotspur a few weeks later or his booking for simulation at Villa Park last week are conclusive dives. All involve contact between him and an opponent. It could be argued that, like the vast majority of players, Mané make the most of said contact. But his promise to ‘dive’ again if the opportunity arises is unlikely to defuse the situation.
Mané’s greatest talent of all, however, may be knowing when to step up to the plate and make up for any decline in Mohamed Salah’s output. That has been the case since the 2017-18 campaign, when Mané flittered in and out of form while Salah reached a level that was quite frankly absurd. Not even Aguero, who has spent more than a decade at the summit of European football, has come close to a single-season return of 43 goals in all competitions.
His Golden Boot-winning 32 league goals that year was well above an expected goals value of approximately 22. Is it any surprise, then, that it proved unsustainable? Salah remains deadly but his hot streak of 2017-18 has certainly cooled. He has still has eight goals in 16 appearances, scored in only six of those games, with his last non-penalty league goal coming in mid-September. An ankle injury has disrupted his start and there is evidence to suggest, like Aguero, he is becoming more of a team player. But for the moment, he is performing slightly below his level of previous years.
Check the many combined XIs which have been produced in anticipation of Sunday’s game and you will notice that Salah – a player who has won the Golden Boot two seasons running, scoring 59 Premier League goals since his return to English football – is not included. The consensus appears to be that Sterling and Aguero would be joined by Mané. Fantasy line-ups tell us very little but, if nothing else, Salah’s exclusion from them demonstrates the stratospheric calibre of these two attacks.