On Tuesday, Pep Guardiola had been happy to eulogise about Rodri, quick to agree when it was suggested his fellow Spaniard was the best midfielder in Europe at the moment. Yet as the man who earned Manchester City their first Champions League trudged past him, Guardiola stood and stared. There were no consoling words, no arm around the shoulder, no superlatives and no celebration.
The City manager may have already been counting the cost of a red card. Not against Nottingham Forest, who were beaten anyway, but for the three occasions when he will be without a talisman. Rodri will be banned against Newcastle, in the Carabao Cup, plus Wolves and Arsenal in the Premier League. The loss of a big-game player for the biggest match of City’s season so far could be telling. A couple of seasons ago, Rodri was City’s match-winner against Arsenal. There will be no repeat in October and the chances are that Mikel Arteta will welcome his suspension.
Certainly, if anything halts City, who equalled their longest winning start to a Premier League campaign, it could be a loss of key players. Suddenly Guardiola, the manager who collects midfielders, looks short of them. Ilkay Gundogan is gone, Kevin de Bruyne is injured for the long term, Mateo Kovacic and Bernardo Silva for the short term. City will study the fitness bulletins for the Croatian and the Portuguese, particularly ahead of the trip to the Emirates Stadium. A rare sighting of Kalvin Phillips on the pitch, and not merely for the last couple of minutes in a token cameo, counted as a desperate measure, by Guardiola’s standards.
If Rodri has acquired a ubiquity of late at City, this was an illustration it is not always a benefit. He has been a scorer more than before and turned creator, with a wonderful pass that led to Phil Foden’s opener. But when there was a flashpoint immediately after half-time, it involved him. After they had bumped chests, he grabbed Morgan Gibbs-White by the throat; the hysterical reaction of the Englishman scarcely helped his cause, but the Spaniard’s reaction was needless. It seemed out of character, too: Rodri is no stranger to yellow cards but this was the first red of his City career. As VAR upheld referee Anthony Taylor’s decision, it is hard to imagine it will be overturned should City appeal.
It came in the context of a match that felt unnecessarily fractious. Guardiola got a first-half yellow card for dissent and Ederson a caution for going head to head with Taiwo Awoniyi, while Forest amassed seven bookings. Yet Rodri’s exit also meant that from the most comfortable of starts – City had two goals within a quarter of an hour, 90 per cent of possession after 27 minutes – they had to offer an illustration of their grit.
Plan B for Guardiola was to withdraw two of his attack-minded players, Jeremy Doku and Julian Alvarez, and overload on defenders, with substitute Nathan Ake making it five at the back. Amid a role reversal – Forest, initially defensive, sent on Anthony Elanga, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Chris Wood and Divock Origi – a clean sheet was secured with the aid of a 5-3-1 formation that Guardiola rarely deploys. It was a testament to their defending that there were few alarms.
But it made a break from the norm whereas, until Rodri’s sending off, there was a familiar feel. The bare facts are that City have played 20 games at the Etihad Stadium in 2023 and won all 20; it is still the case that the last team to emerge with a draw here were Frank Lampard’s Everton.
There was another recurring theme. After scoring once, but mustering several glaring misses, from 15 shots across the games to West Ham and Crvena Zvezda, Erling Haaland converted his first chance. The 6.66 per cent conversion rate from those two games was consigned to the past, aided by poor marking by Forest, when Matheus Nunes stood up a cross and the Norwegian supplied an emphatic header. It was a first assist in City colours for Nunes, the summer signing from Wolves, and a second City goal. Haaland should have had a second of the day, volleying over from Ake’s late cross, but by then he was isolated in attack.
Forest had begun by dropping captain Joe Worrall, despite fielding a back five. They still conceded inside seven minutes, twice within 14. The opener at least offered Rodri something to savour. He provided the kind of pass more associated with the injured De Bruyne, a diagonal ball behind the Forest defence for the on-rushing Kyle Walker to cushion a cut-back. Foden hooked in a half-volley. It seemed to set the tone for a stroll, but the side effect of victory – with Rodri’s dismissal – means it may yet prove an afternoon City rue.
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