It’s always important not to fall into the trap of reading too much into pre-season performances and Manchester City will know this as well as any team.
For many, the big takeaway of last season’s Community Shield defeat to Leicester was that Pep Guardiola’s men would really be in trouble if they didn’t sign Harry Kane. In fact, they even lost to Tottenham in their first league game and yet, things didn’t pan out too badly for the eventual champions.
Plenty of teams have seen promising friendly performances turn to dust once the serious business begins, so it really is a difficult task to decide which bits to take from games at this time of year.
Having said all that, City’s performance in a 2-1 victory over Club America in Houston, Texas, on Wednesday evening (or the early hours of Thursday in the UK) surely sets them up for an unprecedented quadruple.
Not quite! But there were some things that stood out and certain themes that might be returned to when the main event starts in just a couple of weeks’ time.
De Bruyne in fine fettle
Even had Kevin De Bruyne not scored twice in City’s first pre-season outing of the summer, what Guardiola said about him would have been enough to set things up nicely for the new season.
“Last pre-season, he arrived in bad conditions because of injuries,” the City boss said.
“He took a long time to get his best condition but the start of this season was the opposite. We saw, in sessions, he’s sharp and strong, and he continued with the same level as last season. It was his best season in terms of scoring goals and he’s started really well.”
De Bruyne did indeed finish last season in sparkling form. o much so that he dragged City to another Premier League title and himself into contention for the PFA Player of the Year award — eventually losing out to Mohamed Salah — despite only really hitting his stride after Christmas thanks to injuries and a bout of COVID-19 .
So for him to be in good shape already — not to mention banging the goals in — can only bode well.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) July 21, 2022
Last summer, City’s pre-season was majorly affected by international tournaments (no team contributed more players to the Euros and Copa America) but the opportunity to have the vast majority of the squad together this time around will mean that Guardiola’s side are in better condition to kick off the new season, whatever the results.
Rodri also looked fully comfortable on his first run-out of the summer and the more players that City can get into a groove early, the better.
City sweating over centre-back options ahead of the new season
City still might have to overcome a couple of defensive issues in the opening weeks of the season.
Aymeric Laporte hasn’t traveled to the United States and he is unlikely to be fit enough to start the season.
The Spain defender battled through the final games of last season, shrugging off a muscle injury in the final stages of the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid and then a bad-looking knee injury against Wolves to make sure City weren’t left short for their crucial last two games of 2021-22.
He could not train between matches and felt it difficult to move when he did play, and his heroic efforts came at the cost of a small procedure at Dr Ramon Cugat’s Barcelona clinic soon after City lifted the title.
Laporte was at the clinic while Erling Haaland was carrying out some medical checks ahead of his move to City, and Ruben Dias was also there.
Dias missed Wednesday’s friendly through illness, but City are also being careful with his progress this summer. The 25-year-old missed seven weeks with a hamstring injury during spring, with Guardiola urging caution at the time.
“The doctor said the position when he got injured is so risky, we have to be careful,” he said. “They tell me (it could be) four-to-six weeks but it’s much better to go to six than four. We won’t take a risk on him. If he went down, he’d be out for the season.”
Dias then suffered a different hamstring injury with three games of the season to go and missed the run-in. As a result, City are keeping a close eye on him this summer and do not want to take any risks.
City’s current lack of options at centre-back was highlighted in Houston on Wednesday with Nathan Ake lining up alongside 18-year-old Luke Mbete before Kalvin Phillips came on at half-time to make his debut in defence, replacing Ake.
In that sense, it is especially good news that Ake staying at City. The Dutchman could have left for Chelsea this summer, though it was always a strong possibility that he could start the new season at the heart of the City defense given injuries elsewhere.
John Stones should be available for the start of the new season, although his preparations have not been ideal. He has been with City’s under-23s in Croatia, alongside Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan.
City should have more than enough to cope at the start of the season — especially compared to the partnership of Fernandinho and a struggling Laporte in May — but they might not be at full strength in that department for a few more weeks.
No Haaland but Alavarez looks bright
No doubt a big disappointment to anybody at the NRG Arena on Wednesday, and those watching at home, was that new signing Haaland didn’t see a single minute of action.
The Norway striker missed a few days of training last week with what is thought to be a minor niggle and it was always considered unlikely that he would start against Club America.
Haaland himself has tweeted that he hopes to make his debut against Bayern Munich in Green Bay on Saturday, and as with other players this summer, it is simply a case of City not taking any fitness risks at this time of year.
In fact, one of the ways that City sold themselves to Haaland during negotiations was to assure him that they would not push him to play if he needed a rest or had an injury. The 22-year-old had considered that less physical Spanish football might better suit him in terms of prolonging his career but City officials argued that he would be more likely to play even when not ready were he to join Real Madrid, such is the pressure on new signings at the Santiago Bernabeu.
At City, they reasoned, he would not be rushed quite so much, and that may be in evidence already.
In his absence, City got a first look at Julian Alvarez and there were more encouraging words from Guardiola regarding the Argentinian.
“Julian was amazing. Defensively, he is quite similar like Gabriel (Jesus),” he said.
“Gabriel is probably the best but he is close to him in aggression and how intuitive he is — he makes the runs and with the ball, he’s absolutely brilliant. He can keep the ball and you can link with him without a problem.
“We have the feeling we signed a top-class young player for the next years to come and we are delighted.”
Alvarez’s aggression, link-up play and vision was in evidence on Wednesday, and he could play an important role for City next season. He also offered the kind of runs in behind that City were capable of last season but did not often call upon. That will change the dynamic of their attacks (as will Haaland’s runs) and create more space in midfield, which should, in turn, help the rampaging De Bruyne.
He is expected to need time to adapt to his new surroundings but in recent months, Guardiola has been more and more enthused by Alvarez’s potential, and sources close to the first team say they have been very impressed with his ability in training.
The former River Plate man has already said he can contribute on either wing, as well as down the middle of the attack, and many in Argentina believe he will be a perfect option to play alongside Haaland.
Guardiola is unlikely to go with a front two this season but if he can find a way for them to link up, for example with Alvarez coming in off the wing and a midfielder or a full-back taking his place out wide, then he would be a very exciting prospect.
Thousands of Mexican fans booing Jack Grealish
(Top photo: Matt McNulty – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)