With an in-game argument against Aston Villa, Manchester City teammates send Erling Haaland mixed signals.
Players’ telling response to Gundogan goal
The last time Ilkay Gundogan crept in at the far post to score against Aston Villa, Manchester City won the Premier League in dramatic fashion. The finish against the same opposition on Sunday was almost identical, but the celebrations weren’t as provider Erling Haaland got the plaudits of his teammates this time.
Haaland had pounced upon Lucas Digne’s wayward header back, rounded goalkeeper Emi Martinez, and when the shot wasn’t on, he did well to cross for Gundogan. Four teammates ran to Haaland to celebrate, rather than Gundogan, and the fans behind the goal all chanted for the striker too after an impressive bit of opportunistic forward play. Haaland has been tasked with adding more assists to his game, and this was one of his better performances in terms of involving himself in the build-up.
Haaland’s mixed messages
If Haaland was feeling the love from his teammates after Gundogan’s goal, he was brought back down to earth when Jack Grealish won a penalty and suddenly Rodri and Riyad Mahrez were arguing over who would take it. Haaland has been deadly from the spot this season, while Mahrez has missed twice and Rodri last stepped up in 2021 – scoring the only penalty he’s attempted in his career.
As fans once again called for Haaland, showing who they wanted to take it, Mahrez won the argument and converted coolly. Minutes later, with a 3-0 lead and attention turning to Arsenal, Haaland was replaced at half-time. Mahrez’s performance deserved a goal, and the penalty was well-taken, although to outrank Haaland’s 100 percent record raises questions over who in fact is City’s designated spot-kick taker.
Rodri answers critics
After an increasing number of mistakes in recent games – including three in the two games against Tottenham – some questions were starting to be raised over Rodri’s form. Previously an undroppable cog in the City side, maybe the over-reliance on the Spaniard was beginning to show, and with Arsenal up next it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise to give him a rest against Villa.
However, Rodri started in a new system for City, and he immediately proved why he should be in the side with a powerful header from a Riyad Mahrez corner to give the Blues an early lead. This was Rodri closer to his influential best, and the goal will have done wonders for his confidence. It was also a more attacking performance than City is used to from their holding midfielder, but with Bernardo covering, Rodri could have had a hat-trick on another day.
Guardiola’s radical left-back solution
Pep Guardiola played Nathan Ake at left-back so regularly that Joao Cancelo felt he had to leave to get regular games. Since Cancelos’s departure, though, Guardiola hasn’t played Ake there in two games, with Rico Lewis on the left at Tottenham and nobody there against Villa. A back-three of Ruben Dias, Aymeric Laporte, and Kyle Walker was preferred, with Bernardo Silva and Rodri patrolling the wide areas to offer protection.
The experimental formation also suggested that allowing Cancelo to leave was not part of any long-term plan and that Guardiola may need to conduct a few more experiments before deciding on a solution for that position for the rest of the season. Having Bernardo cover in a more defensive role, on the other hand, could bode well for whatever system the manager chooses.
With City 3-0 up at half-time, having already rested some recent regulars like Nathan Ake and Manu Akanji, they turned their attentions firmly towards Wednesday’s huge title battle with Arsenal by taking off striker Erling Haaland and returning defender Ruben Dias. City’s experimental back three ensured that Mikel Arteta will continue guessing over the Blues’ defensive shape until Wednesday evening, and the resting of Haaland is hardly giving anything away.
Jack Grealish, who had another impressive game, was the next to be replaced in order to give Phil Foden some minutes, and City successfully saw the game out without too much bother – barring Ollie Watkins’ consolation. Nathan Ake’s introduction to make sure of the win suggests it will be a return to a back four at Arsenal next time out, with the back three a little too wobbly toward the end.