The Premier League kicks off once again on 13th August, which means the infamous return of one manager and his hard-to-predict starting XIs. Pep Guardiola is known for his rampant rotation as much as his tactical ingenuity. However, with the lack of break between the major summer tournaments – the European Championships and Copa America – and the start of the domestic campaign, early team selection for Manchester City could be even more difficult to second guess this time around. So what could we expect to see come Sunday afternoon away to Tottenham Hotspur?
FINAL PRE-SEASON XI
City’s starting line-up in their final pre-season match – a 1-0 loss to Leicester City in the Community Shield – provides the basis for what their XI could look like against Spurs on Sunday. Guardiola opted for a 4-3-3 with nine first-team players and two youth products:
In the past, the Spaniard has only made 3-4 changes between the Community Shield and the first league fixture of the season, so we can expect a similar number to the starting line-up against Spurs on Sunday. Cole Palmer and Samuel Edozie both look likely to drop out in place of the established first-teamers, but who else could be on the chopping block?
TEAM SELECTION – GOALKEEPER
One change could easily come in goal. First-choice goalkeeper Ederson returned to training on Monday 9th August after reaching the Copa America finals with Brazil over the summer. This has meant second-choice stopper Zack Steffen has been filling in between the sticks during pre-season.
However, it seems unlikely that Steffen will keep his place in the starting line-up for City’s opening league game as he has been traditionally used as the domestic cup keeper, whereas Ederson typically plays all Premier League and European matches. Though a lack of training and pre-season minutes could be an issue, it would be surprising for the latter to not be in goal against Spurs at the weekend.
TEAM SELECTION – FULL-BACKS
Joao Cancelo and Benjamin Mendy have been frequently used as City’s two full-backs during pre-season, accumulating 285 and 286 minutes respectively. The former’s inclusion has been expected given Kyle Walker’s delayed return following England’s run to the final in the Euros, meanwhile Mendy’s is more of a surprise as fellow left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko has been back in the fold for a couple of weeks now.
Reports suggest that this is Mendy’s last chance to impress Guardiola after four roller-coaster years in Manchester. Yet the fact that he has started all four pre-season games breeds confidence that the Frenchman will be City’s starting left-back against Tottenham on Sunday.
TEAM SELECTION – CENTRE-BACKS
Whether Guardiola will stick with his pre-season partnership of Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake at centre-back, however, is less certain. The latter conceded that crucial penalty against Leicester City in the Community Shield, highlighting the prevalence of errors in his game. Therefore, Ake’s position in the starting line-up would appear to be the most precarious. The problem for City, though, is that their other options – Aymeric Laporte and John Stones – are only just coming back to training.
Stones returned on Monday, meanwhile Laporte has to wait till either Wednesday or Thursday due to a positive coronavirus case on his flight back to England. This appears to rule Laporte out of City’s first league game on Sunday, with Stones an outside bet depending on what his initial fitness is like. That leaves midfielder Fernandinho as the only other option to replace Ake at centre-back, but that would be a bold call by Guardiola against a fast-paced Tottenham attack.
TEAM SELECTION – MIDFIELD & ATTACK
Replacing Ake with Fernandinho also appears unlikely due to the ramifications this would have on City’s midfield. Fernandinho has been the most-used midfielder in pre-season and looks set to retain that holding role given Rodri is yet to start a game since returning to training. Ilkay Gundogan seems like an obvious choice to partner Fernandinho in either a midfield two or three, with Bernardo Silva a likely replacement for Cole Palmer. Kevin de Bruyne is a big doubt for the game against Tottenham due to concerns over an ankle injury.
Yet it is in attack that City’s first-team players have had the fewest pre-season minutes. Riyad Mahrez has been the most senior inclusion throughout and would be a likely starter at the weekend, with Ferran Torres the next-placed after playing 74 minutes against Leicester City.
However, the third spot is more uncertain. Phil Foden is sidelined with a foot injury sustained while away with England over the summer, whereas Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus only returned to training on Monday after their escapades with their respective national teams. Whether their fitness levels are ready for a competitive match on Sunday remains to be seen.
That leaves new signing Jack Grealish as a potential starter. The former Aston Villa attacker has 25 minutes under his belt for City, but it would be a big ask to start against Tottenham in what has proved to be a difficult match in the past for the Premier League champions. If it is deemed too soon for Grealish, Guardiola will have to weigh up throwing Sterling or Jesus into the mix or retaining faith in a youngster to play 45-60 minutes.
PREVIOUS LINE-UPS v TOTTENHAM
City played Spurs three times last season and in each Guardiola stuck to either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. Tottenham have a new manager in Nuno Espírito Santo, which could change how Pep approaches the game, yet it still gives a useful guide on personnel choices.
2-0 away loss – November 2020 (Premier League):
(4-3-3): Ederson; Walker; Dias; Laporte; Cancelo; De Bruyne; Rodri; Bernardo; Mahrez; Jesus; Torres.
3-0 home win – February 2021 (Premier League):
(4-3-3): Ederson; Cancelo; Stones; Laporte; Zinchenko; Bernardo; Rodri; Gundogan; Foden; Jesus; Sterling.
1-0 win – April 2021 (Carabao Cup final):
(4-2-3-1): Steffen; Walker; Dias; Laporte; Cancelo; Fernandinho; Gundogan; Mahrez; De Bruyne; Sterling; Foden.