The Biggest Questions Facing Manchester City’s Midfield

What Is The Best Position For Bernardo Silva?

Back in 2018/19 Bernardo Silva was one of the best, in fact probably the best, midfielder in the Premier League. While Kevin De Bruyne suffered from injuries he did an excellent job filling in for him on the right of that midfield three. Since Bernardo has joined Man City that position is where he has played his best football which now looks like a bit of a problem.

De Bruyne has been back at his best in 2019/20 and will not be dislodged from the right-centre midfield spot leaving Bernardo Silva to play most of his minutes out on the right wing. The issue is not just that he cannot get into the first eleven at that position either, with Mahrez claiming it as his own, but it just doesn’t allow Man City to get the best from him.

Lacking any kind of real explosive pace or exceptional 1v1 qualities, Bernardo can better exert his influence on the game playing a little deeper, in the half space, particularly on the right side where he can come in on his left foot. In his most recent game there (the GW30 5–0 win vs Burnley) he contributed with two assists and caused chaos for the Burnley defence combining with Mahrez on the right side of the field.

Another benefit of having Bernardo Silva in midfield is his terrific engine that allows him to cover a significant amount of ground. This is a quality which can be so important for a team like City who at times are vulnerable in defensive transitions. Having players who have the stamina to press from the front and also chase back after turnovers is key.

There was one performance in particular last season which stood out for Bernardo’s hard work and contribution in the defensive side of the game, and that was the game vs Liverpool at the Etihad. In that vital 2–1 win he put up 10 ball recoveries, 3 successful tackles, 4 interceptions, 4 fouls and ran 13.7km which was further than any other Premier League player had managed that season.

This brings us to the question of how Bernardo Silva should be used going forward. As long as Kevin De Bruyne remains at City playing at this level there is no room for Bernardo as a starter in his best position. He can do a solid job as the right winger or on the on the left side of the midfield three but neither of those roles will allow City to truly get the best out of him.

Unfortunately, if there are no drastic changes to the Manchester City attacking players for next season, I expect Bernardo’s role to remain relatively similar in 2020/21. It is a shame that there are two players of such a high quality who are both at their best playing in the same position but I guess that’s what happens when you have the kind of squad depth that Manchester City have.

Will Phil Foden Be The Successor To David Silva?

The wait for Phil Foden to fully break into the Manchester City team as a regular starter has been a long one, but now we appear to be nearing the make or break point. For a while now the theory has gone that Foden is the natural successor to David Silva and when the Spaniard leaves then Foden can take his place in the first eleven.

We are now into the final months of Silva’s time at the club, so moving into the 2020/21 season we will find out if Pep is ready to hand Silva’s responsibilities over to Foden, and if Foden is able to handle it. Although this has been his best season in the Premier League in terms of minutes played, that figure is only 458 minutes from 16 appearances so far, meaning that kind of increase in role will be a huge one.

Something else that may be of note is recently Pep has been deploying Foden as a winger, rather than one of the midfield trio. We saw it in the 5–0 win against Burnley, when he played exceptionally well, and another notable performance in that position was in the League Cup final against Villa, another impressive display.

I guess the question here is will Foden be used as a wide player regularly in the next few years or has that just been a temporary option to get him more minutes in the first team? There’s no doubt he has the capabilities to do a solid job if he continues to be used as a winger but I much prefer the idea of him taking David Silva’s place in the centre of the field for the majority of his minutes in future.

One big reason for this is his ability to work in tight spaces. We have seen his excellent close control as well as the speed in which he is able to change direction with the ball at his feet when he has been given the opportunities to play. For a team like City this is particularly important with so many opponents opting to defend deep against them to minimise the amount of space in and around the box.

Foden’s movement has also been a standout aspect of his game. Not only in finding space to receive the ball, but perhaps more importantly the timing and locations of his runs into the box. Of course that is a key skill for a winger in Pep’s City as well, something displayed well by Raheem Sterling, and that is a big reason why I think Foden could be used across both central and wide roles.

Regardless of which position Pep Guardiola decides to primarily use Foden in the 2020/21 season, it will be a monumental one for the young English midfielder. I suspect Pep is ready to reward Foden with more minutes and more responsibilities but the truth is that if he wants to keep him at the club then he has little choice. He has been patient long enough, Foden now deserves his chance to become a key part of City’s first team.

Do Manchester City Miss Fernandinho In The Centre Of Midfield?

One of the biggest differences between the Manchester City of the past two seasons and the Manchester City of this season has been the change in role for Fernandinho. With Rodri brought in from Atletico Madrid to play as the deepest midfielder of the three, Fernandinho was moved to centre back, initially to cover for an injured Aymeric Laporte, but has remained there even since his return.

I don’t think there is anything to worry about regarding what Rodri offers to Manchester City in possession with his quality on the ball, but I suspect they miss Fernandinho in the role when it comes to the defensive side of the game. The increased frailty of Man City on defensive transitions in 2019/20 clearly is not as a result of just one player. For example the problems at centre back are a factor with Laporte missing a large chunk of the season.

With Manchester City usually playing an attacking midfield, both in terms of personnel and how high they play up the field, anchoring the trio is a very demanding job. Fernandinho was the expert at cutting out opposition breaks whether that be through legal means or through fouls, and in his first season in that role Rodri has not been able to carry it out at quite the same standard.

To a degree some of that can be put down to his lack of experience compared to Fernandinho, in addition to this only being his first season at the club. It’s worth remembering that Rodri has only recently turned 24 and you would expect him to grow into the role more as we go into the 2020/21 season.

Another aspect of it is his lack of pace. It doesn’t help that typically David Silva or Gundogan are usually occupying one of the midfield spaces next to him and are both also short on pace. Silva is moving on after this season so that’s not something to be concerned about in the future but continuing to play Gundogan and Rodri together might be, and I know it is something that already frustrates many City fans.

For me, Gundogan is best used as the deepest midfielder as an alternative to Rodri rather than as well as him. Working on the presumption that Fernandinho won’t take back the starting DM spot, Man City would be better off with Foden, Bernardo or a new signing on the left side of the midfielder. Essentially a player more capable of covering the ground going both ways for when City turn the ball over.

If they are to reclaim the Premier League title next season it is clear Pep’s side must improve, especially on the defensive side of the game. Rodri taking over from Fernandinho doesn’t necessarily need to be an issue long term but I think it has been in this campaign. City fans will hope part of that is resolved simply by a second season improvement from Rodri but his lack of mobility must be compensated for by changes in other areas, whether that be a different style of player at LCM or an upgrade/s at centre back and left back.

Originally published at https://jackmccutcheon.com on July 2, 2020.