Last season, the most successful of Manchester City’s history, the credit was shared out widely. In the domestic cup competitions, no outfield player started more matches than Aymeric Laporte. When he held up the FA Cup, he clasped the trophy with a well-earned sense of ownership.
Across the English cups, no forward was on the pitch for more minutes than Riyad Mahrez, City’s leading scorer in the FA Cup segment of their treble.
As City travel to Newcastle United to embark on their bid for the one significant piece of silverware, the League Cup, that escaped them in their glorious 2022/23 campaign, a glance back at how senior roles were rotated and spread last time around seems apt.
The League Cup is a platform for studied team changes and, carefully planned, an opportunity for the bigger, busier clubs to give first-team minutes to young talents or those who might feel marginalised.
And when a squad can call on the likes of Laporte and Mahrez to guarantee a certain level of freshness, it is a deep squad indeed. But here’s the new reality for City: Laporte and Mahrez, along with Ilkay Gundogan and academy-graduate Cole Palmer, were the outfielders most used in City’s three rounds of League Cup action last season; all of them left the club in the summer.
They are significant departures and, if sympathy for Pep Guardiola when he worries out loud about how his resources will be stretched given the fixture congestion in this crowded season tends to be limited, he pointed out fatigue can become cumulative. “The problem is the lack of rest, mentally especially, over years and years,” said the City manager.
His club sell shrewdly, buy wisely and spend big wherever potential to improve is identified. On the evidence of seven wins out of seven in competitive matches – since City lost the Community Shield on penalties to Arsenal – a roster that replaces Mahrez with Jeremy Doku, Laporte with Josko Gvardiol and brings in Matheus Nunes and Mateo Kovacic to cover some of gaps left by Gundogan should be a squad equipped for most terrains.
But once you strip away Kevin de Bruyne, recuperating from injury until the new year, and Rodri, suspended following his red card against Nottingham Forest, then Guardiola’s concerns about back-up come into sharp focus.
Man City 2 Forest 0: Player ratings
Kovacic, signed from Chelsea in the summer, has missed the last three matches overcoming a back problem, and although Guardiola will likely name him in the party to face Newcastle, he anticipates the Croatian playing much less than a full 90 minutes.
He did confirm Kalvin Phillips will start this evening, an encouraging signal to the England midfielder who, since joining City from Leeds United 15 months ago has been in Guardiola’s starting line-up a mere four times.
His praise for Phillips, ahead of the glamour tie of the League Cup’s third round, was intended to motivate. “He’s been really important,” said Guardiola, singling out Phillips’s authority coming off the bench with City reduced to 10 men for most of the second half in the 2-0 win against Forest. “His consistency, [his being] more defensive, resilient, he helped us breathe.”
Patchy first seasons for players stepping up into an ambitious club can be forgiven. But their second year comes with expectation that a high price tag must now be justified. Phillips, 27, is at that threshold of his career.
As Newcastle manager Eddie Howe surveyed his squad, boosted by a number of costly reinforcements in the last three transfer windows, he described Anthony Gordon, the winger, in just those terms. Gordon, 22, left Everton for Champions League-bound Newcastle in January, and tended to be used initially from the bench.
Since August, he has been in the starting XI for all but one game. “An outstanding start to the season,” said Howe. “What’s pleased me most is his fitness level. His athleticism has really come to the fore.
“When we sign players, there needs to be patience. Much as you want to them to be outstanding from minute one, that’s very rare. Sometimes there’s a bedding-in period. Some players take longer than others. We had no doubt about Anthony’s quality but I think pre-season was really good for him, as were the six months with us before the summer. He came back with greater understanding.”
Gordon has two goals and a pair of assists to his credit so far in 2023/24, and, although at Sheffield United at the weekend he came on for the injured Harvey Barnes, by the end of the 8-0 rout he had his name on the scoresheet.
Strength in depth? A good spread of attacking options? Newcastle are acquiring it. Eight players scored in Sheffield. “It’s a great thing to see,” said Howe, “We’re not relying on one person.”