Pep Guardiola can be a master of detail but he is rarely a numbers man. He does not often quote the facts and figures and, when he does, they are not guaranteed to be accurate. He was unusually specific when he reflected on Manchester City’s three consecutive Premier League wins.
“We score the last 11 goals from nine different players,” he said. In one respect, he was wrong: the 10th scorer for City in that time is Tim Krul, the luckless Norwich goalkeeper. But a devotee of total football has a new form of equality with a side who share the goals around.
Ferran Torres has scored as a striker, Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus as wingers, Raheem Sterling and Riyad Mahrez as substitutes in attack. Aymeric Laporte had chipped in from centre-back. Ilkay Gundogan and Rodri had struck from the centre of the park before Bernardo Silva’s decider at Leicester meant all the current midfield have opened their account for the campaign. Had Fernandinho’s late shot gone in, or the Joao Cancelo effort that led to Silva’s winner or a rasping attempt from Kyle Walker, it would have furthered the sense City can get goals from everywhere and anywhere.
They may need to. It is easy to envisage a four-way battle for the Golden Boot, between the Premier League’s top two last season, Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah, and their Serie A counterparts, Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku. City are taking a different approach: not through choice, given they wanted Kane and expressed an interest in Ronaldo, but through necessity.
Torres could be burdened with comparisons to the superstar strikers elsewhere; they are both automatically unfair and relevant. He had been terrific in scoring a brace against Arsenal two weeks earlier. On the day Lukaku and Ronaldo delivered doubles, Torres, albeit against higher-calibre opposition in an excellent Leicester side, was less effective. Guardiola had compared him to Jamie Vardy two weeks earlier and, in a team that had less of the ball at the King Power, the veteran was the greater threat. Torres, though, is a work in progress, compared with the finishers who are the finished article.
Guardiola has never judged strikers purely by their goal tally. Nor does he think they should shoulder all the responsibility for scoring. The collectivist approach will have to carry on. “It’s the only way to sustain our level,” he said, after their 25 shots came from 10 different players.
It is a method that has proved possible before. City were top scorers in regaining the league title last season when their leading marksman, Gundogan, was a midfielder who had never previously been prolific. If that felt a one-off for the German, an outlier of a campaign, there is a wider question if the methodology is repeatable, with plenty of contributors featuring one who is first among equals. City had one player on 13 league goals, one on 10, three on nine, one on seven and another with six last season. None of them was named Sergio Aguero.
Now the arrival of Grealish furnishes Guardiola with another who could get between six and 13, whereas Chelsea and Manchester United have recruits who might regard anything under 20 as a failure. So far City are the top scorers, even though Kevin de Bruyne and Phil Foden only have 12 minutes of football and no goals between them.
Yet it is not just an issue of how many goals each gets, but when. City have two 5-0 routs and, including the Community Shield, two 1-0 defeats this season. The first goal can assume an importance. Lukaku and Ronaldo got it for their sides on Saturday. Silva did for City on an afternoon when he was a talisman. Lacking that banker, that guarantee, it is a question if someone can deliver enough significant strikes, in the way Gundogan did last season, to be decisive. No one else, even Chelsea, has as many technically gifted midfielders and wingers but there feels a clearer division of responsibilities between passers and scorers at their rivals.
If Guardiola famously wants everyone to be a midfielder, he also needs them all to be a finisher. “It doesn’t matter who scores,” said Silva. Whatever they would say in public, it might not be a sentiment Ronaldo or Kane would share. But then City’s summer in the transfer market means they have to continue to be defiantly different.
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