Wouldn’t it be ironic, after two seasons of false nineing, if Manchester City suddenly ended up with too many strikers?
Compared to how many wingers they would have, that is. Should Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus both leave, following the arrivals of Erling Haaland and Julian Alvarez, that is the situation they could find themselves in.
And, it must be said, it is one they are prepared for. The idea of Sterling and Jesus leaving in the coming weeks is no shock to anybody in any position of responsibility at City: it’s been a situation that has been building for at least a year.
City have a good idea of how their summer will pan out. Their top two targets are Leeds United midfielder Kalvin Phillips and Brighton left-back Marc Cucurella. They know some (but probably not all) of Sterling, Jesus, Ilkay Gundogan, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Bernardo Silva could leave. They expect Riyad Mahrez to stay.
These things don’t always pan out exactly as expected (Bernardo’s future likely hinges on whether Barcelona can actually raise enough money to spend at least £75 million, for example) but all of this is what City have in mind right now. Which means they don’t have any plans to buy another winger.
So let’s say that Sterling and Jesus both leave. Chelsea have emerged as the favorites to sign Sterling, whose deal expires next summer. He became concerned about his playing time over a year ago and nothing that has happened since has convinced him that he will get the minutes he wants if he were to stay at the Etihad Stadium. It is essentially the same situation as Jesus, who has an offer on the table from Arsenal, although Chelsea are also interested in him, too.
If good enough offers arrive for both players, City won’t stand in their way, even if the prospect of them moving to domestic rivals is less than ideal.
In that case, City’s wide options would be Phil Foden and Jack Grealish on the left and Mahrez and Cole Palmer on the right. With Haaland and Alvarez through the middle they still have six players for three positions, two per position, just in a very different way to before.
Pep Guardiola talked about the need to “shake” the squad over a year ago but that did not transpire. Suddenly, the front line, in particular, could have a new feel to it very soon. Having No 9s in the mold of Haaland and Alvarez, who are more than happy to attack the spaces behind the opposition defense and sniff around for goals in the box, would be a fresh feature after two years of small, technical midfielders fulfilling the striker’s brief by dropping into midfield (although the new boys will have to do that, too).
Haaland’s pace offers City a new counter-attacking threat, as does Alvarez’s for that matter, although it does feel as if Guardiola would be lacking a pace, dynamic threat out wide, particularly on the right.
As Sterling himself described it a few months ago, City’s game has slowly changed since Leroy Sane’s day.
“It was more dynamic, more crosses: me on one side, Leroy Sane on the other; two motorbikes, just constant zoom zoom zoom zoom. Now, it’s more patient, more keep-ball and not as dynamic, but both teams kept the ball really well and score goals.”
Without Sterling, City wouldn’t have that pure pace to attack the box from wide, and Haaland would be deprived of another rapid team-mate to break alongside, although it must be said that a large part of the reason that Sterling might be leaving is that he hasn’t played in that many games, so it’s not as if they have really missed it for the past two seasons, given they have won the title in both.
It would be good to have the option and the flexibility, though, and on the right, City would have two broadly similar players in Mahrez and Palmer — they are both very comfortable in tight spaces and can twist and turn on the edge of the box to probe for openings. They can beat a man, for sure, but not with the type of explosiveness of Sterling or even Jesus, who came to be used as a winger over the past year or so.
Some City fans have grown frustrated with the finishing of both players, but Sterling was the club’s third-highest scorer last season and Jesus was joint fifth. Between them, they scored 30 goals in 2021-22.
Should Haaland make the kind of impact expected, even if most new City signings need time to settle, he could shoulder most of that burden himself given his finishing ability. Alvarez can also help, but cannot be counted upon to make an immediate impact.
Foden and Mahrez have provided a steady flow of goals over the past two seasons but others would need to chip in, too.
At the age of 20, Palmer has a big season ahead. He made 11 senior appearances last season but that figure would probably have grown had he not picked up an injury in January that kept him out for several months.
Part of the reason that City were comfortable in letting Ferran Torres leave was that they believe Palmer, on the back of what they had seen in the first half of last season, has a higher ceiling than the Spaniard, who they did rate highly.
Back then, Palmer had a good chance of getting into the team as a false nine (or even as an actual No 9, as he demonstrated by switching between the roles in a game against Everton) but next season his best bet is on the right wing. And City do expect him to play a lot more next season.
On the left, City would really need Grealish to kick on in his second season, and that wouldn’t be a big surprise given the fortunes of most other signings in the past five or six years, who have really shone after their first year at the club.
Grealish, in theory, fills that Sterling role from the left, as he can start wide and carry the ball infield, cutting onto his stronger right foot, or simply carrying the ball to the line and pulling it back. City have already got plans for Grealish to cut inside and cross towards the back post for Haaland. More goals would be especially given those who could be useful leaving.
Restoring Foden to the left is an exciting proposition, given he looked so vibrant there in his breakthrough campaign in 2020-21. He is deceptively fast, it must be said, and can dribble past players at speed in a similar style to Sane. Sources close to him have also said that he would like to play on the right-hand side, so that may give City another option should things not work out, for whatever reason, with Mahrez or Palmer.
Alvarez is an unknown quantity in many respects. The River Plate striker will join up with City for pre-season and his performances during the summer will determine just how much he is used next season.
Stylistically, he is a fine fit as the hybrid false nine/traditional No 9 striker that Guardiola wants, but City are cautious about the leap in quality between Argentine football and the Premier League. That said, the club have been increasingly impressed with Alvarez since they clinched the deal in January and Guardiola, in particular, is excited to work with him.
Over the past year, he has largely played through the middle but he played on the right before that, and he could be an option once the summer starts to take shape.
The are several question marks across the front line but there are certainly quite exciting, high-potential options who could make for a vibrant, free-scoring attacking unit — and not just Haaland, one of the most tantalising signings in Premier League history.
There is also the option for James McAtee to get some minutes in the attack. Although he is a midfielder, he is more likely to be introduced to the team in a wide role, like Foden and Palmer before him. Several clubs would like to sign him, including Leeds, but both McAtee and City are expecting first-team involvement next season. Liam Delap, meanwhile, is expected to go on loan.
So, there are plenty of ways that City’s forward line could look next season. The only certainty is that things will look very different.
(Photo: Matt McNulty – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)