As excited as I am about next season, as confident as I am that Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke will get it right, I am still uneasy about some of the decision-making. For example, we don’t appear to be in the market for a striker, so what happens if Teemu Pukki gets injured?
I admire the optimism of some, but as things stand this squad (admittedly still only in June) lacks depth.
As of today, Farke is carrying forward nine outfield players that routinely played a part in the last promotion, and arguably only two or three others barely good enough for the subs bench. In my opinion, this squad is currently in a weaker position than during promotion in 2018-19. It has a better core to work from but we need several signings to counterbalance. That season, we carried forward 16 outfield players that routinely played a part in the promotion.
Back then, our various set-ups included play-makers and our attack was physically varied. Notable passing angles meant our fullbacks were involved in creating more goals, and we had dead-piece specialists. Crucially, our play-makers enabled tactical shifts from substitutions.
We also had a physical yet technical foil in the central #10 slot, and had different qualities in the final third, while Pukki was a yard faster than he is now. And even then Match of the Day pundits correctly analysed that we were one-dimensional. Wow. If we were predictable then, without Emi Buendia and Oliver Skipp, what are we now?
In 2019 our centre-backs scored 11 goals whereas this season, Grant Hanley scored once. Max Aarons and Jamal Lewis made 10 assists whereas this season there were only four assists from the fullbacks.
The central defensive midfielders scored seven in 2018-19 but even from deep still assisted seven more. This season there were only three goals but with ten assists, cognisant of the fact Skipp is no longer with us.
Marco Stieperman and Buendia were the two primary attacking midfielders in 2018-19 and they scored 17 and assisted 18 others, whereas Kieran Dowell and Todd Cantwell only managed 11 goals and seven assists – significantly fewer – although, in fairness, Dowell did suffer that ankle injury early on in the season.
Moreover, Stieperman and Leitner in particular enabled formation changes that also saw Onel Hernandez and Mario Vrancic further score 18 goals and assist in 16 others from attacking midfield. How many goals did Przemysław Placheta or Hernanedez score from the bench this season?
Also, Jordan Rhodes scored as many as Hugill and Idah combined. We now need multiple, concurrent substitutes if we are to change our setup, whereas before Leitner or Stieperman meant tweaking was feasible.
But it doesn’t make sense does it?
Cantwell and Dowell are better players, period. The problem, for me is that City do not have the deep-lying playmakers anymore and have dropped the foil of Stieperman, so unless there are changes to the setup, Cantwell and Dowell are going to lack a quality supply in the final third. That’s before you remove the security of Skipp and the brilliance of Buendia.
We need someone to ‘step up to the plate’ and in order to do this they need to be given the tools. Clearly part of the solution is already on board in the for of Milot Rashica.
But can City afford the deep-lying player-maker without forgoing the defensive robustness that Skipp provided? I’m not sure. Perhaps that’s the role for which Billy Gilmour – if he arrives – could fulfil.
Or could Philip Billing replace Stieperman as a physical counterpoint? He could, but if Farke wants a back three we could be spending 15million on a central #10 that won’t play, unless he’s played in a different role.
Can we afford that?
The team from 2019 only gained four fewer points and the goal difference was only three fewer, but they scored nearly 20 more goals. Before jumping on the obvious statement of defensive improvement, which I wholeheartedly agree with, spare a thought for the impact of injuries.
In 2019-20 Farke didn’t stand a chance, but had he been able to play a three-man backline with the attacking attributes of the promoted team? Well, that’s a different story.
While, as things stand, this squad lacks depth, the core of it is adaptable and talented and with just a little bit of tinkering, Farke could make some massive gains. Give him the platform for a three-man backline, which he wanted after the last promotion, and I am confident it will play out nicely.
Regarding our lack of central midfield depth, Alex Mowatt at Barnsley has played in front of a back three all last season, and as club captain played all 46 games while scoring eight and assisting in seven. He out-performed every central defensive midfielder we have except Skipp and even out-scored Cantwell and Dowell, who are attacking midfielders.
It’s only a couple of weeks to pre-season, and with players like Mowatt, you just can’t go wrong, and he’s a free agent.
And, to throw in a curveball, I’d offer a contract to Alex Pritchard. The lad is a quality footballer when he wants to be and in a team devoid of Buendia and in a structure so reliant on technical proficiency, he could be a rabbit in a hat.
In a team that is short on squad depth, encouraging him might just be like taking a punt on tyre fitter from Carlisle, or asking a superstar to leave Man City for lowly Norwich, or believing in a striker failing at Celtic.
There is nothing to lose by giving a humbled Pritchard a second chance but after losing Buendia, there might be something to gain, especially in the supply to Pukki.