Pep Guardiola’s substitutions at Southampton in the FA Cup not only sealed a valuable quarter final win, but also confirmed the manager’s thoughts on his strongest Manchester City XI.
Guardiola had made changes to his side in search of a first win in three games, bringing in Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan – who had all been left on the bench at Crystal Palace. However, it was the eleven players who finished the game that give a better indication of what Guardiola feels is his strongest team.
With nine ‘finals’ in the Premier League left, a testing Champions League quarter-final with Atletico Madrid, and the small matter of an FA Cup semi-final with Liverpool, Guardiola will need his full squad after the international break. What’s becoming clear, though, is that the manager has a strong idea of his best XI that will be the focus of City’s hunt for a treble.
Ederson didn’t start at Southampton as it was an FA Cup game, but he will be an automatic name on the teamsheet against Atletico and for the league match against Liverpool.
If Ruben Dias remains out – and Guardiola has indicated he won’t rush the defender back before he’s fully fit – then the two centre-backs are obvious as John Stones and Aymeric Laporte offer reliability and quality in his absence. When Dias returns, Guardiola will have the option to rotate his three centre-backs throughout the remaining big games.
Kyle Walker has been out of favour, and won’t play in the first leg against Atletico due to suspension, but the back four is stronger with him on the right and Joao Cancelo on the left – just as it was on Sunday.
Rodri started at Southampton ahead of Fernandinho, even though it was a cup game, suggesting that Guardiola sees the Spaniard as his first choice defensive midfielder for every remaining game as silverware gets closer in view. Likewise, Kevin De Bruyne is a clear pick in Guardiola’s strongest side and he was on target at St Mary’s.
Ilkay Gundogan played the full 90 minutes at Southampton, but it is Bernardo Silva who has been used more often in bigger games recently and would be a safe bet to start against Liverpool and Atletico. As back-ups go, Gundogan is a fine option to have.
And in attack, Guardiola’s substitutions at the weekend show where he will look to for goals in the coming months.
Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus did well, but when Guardiola wanted to ensure City made the game safe, he turned to Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden.
Mahrez scored his 22nd goal of the season, and Phil Foden scored a stunner as they joined Raheem Sterling in the front three. On balance, a forward line of Sterling-Foden-Mahrez appears to be Guardiola’s favoured attack for the final two months of the season.
With the likes of Aleks Zinchenko, Nathan Ake, Fernandinho, Gundogan, Grealish and Jesus in reserve, Guardiola has plenty of depth to rotate his squad for these big games. Expect the foundations of City’s starting XI to revolve around the following team, though, if Guardiola’s recent selections are anything to go by.
City’s possible strongest XI for rest of the season: Ederson; Walker, Stones, Laporte, Cancelo; Rodri, De Bruyne, Bernardo; Sterling, Foden, Mahrez.
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