Manchester City’s overwhelming majesty means Kevin De Bruyne’s lengthy injury absence hasn’t quite dominated the headlines as you might’ve expected.
Despite the Belgian playing a starring role in the club’s historic treble triumph last season, there hasn’t been much discourse surrounding De Bruyne’s hamstring injury, which could rule him out until the end of the year, and how it might derail City’s 2023/24 campaign.
The show simply goes on.
Since the midfielder was forced off against Burnley on the opening night of the season, City have put three past the Clarets, unnervingly eased past Newcastle, and emerged as the only side to win their opening three games following their late show at Sheffield United.
Their triumph at Bramall Lane was only slender, though, and some might question whether the Cityzens missed their superstar Belgian against the newly promoted side.
Pep Guardiola’s back surgery meant he was absent from the away dugout, but he would’ve undoubtedly had the biggest say on how City set up at Bramall Lane.
While the personnel meant it could’ve been a 4-4-2, which is was out of possession, City’s structure with the ball often resembled a 3-2-2-3. Kyle Walker was given the license to roam up the field from right-back which allowed Bernardo Silva to drift infield and operate from De Bruyne’s favourite zone: the right-half space.
Bernardo operated alongside Julian Alvarez as two auxiliary number tens who sought to gain positional superiority between the lines. Erling Haaland functioned as the focal point up top, while Jack Grealish rarely strayed from the left flank.
The depth of Sheffield United’s block meant Ruben Dias often got involved in the final third as he would maraud from his defensive position in a bid to overlaod the Blades’ backline. Rodri’s average position was also higher than usual, especially in the second half.
City’s slender victory against an opponent they were expected to thump would suggest they might’ve missed De Bruyne on Sunday. However, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
Sheffield United’s block was stubborn, especially in the opening period, and City were largely kept at bay before Haaland’s penalty miss. They had success with Walker down the right flank, while Alvarez, Silva, and even Ruben Dias exploited the space behind Jack Robinson in the right-hand channel.
City perhaps would’ve been better off had De Bruyne been the one creating from that position, but Walker and Bernardo both delivered brilliantly from the right when they worked the position. Alvarez, the man who has essentially replaced the Belgian in the starting XI, didn’t exclusively operate from typical ‘De Bruyne zones’ but his movement was excellent throughout as he popped up everywhere in the final third.
Alvarez offers something completely different to De Bruyne, and his performance, combined with City’s efficient work down the right meant they didn’t exactly miss their star midfielder on Sunday.
De Bruyne, though, would’ve undoubtedly aided their attempts to break down Sheffield United’s low block with his devastating eye for the killer pass and his ability to shoot from distance. Still, despite the absence of their chief creator, City registered 22 shots (nine on target) and accumulated 3.66 expected goals.
They had no issues creating chances, but their finishing was wasteful throughout.
Logic would tell you that City are pretty well stocked and an additional signing isn’t necessary. But when have the Champions League holders ever been a side to make do?
Jeremy Doku has just landed at the club for north of £50m, though he’s been signed to replenish the wide options limited by Riyad Mahrez’s departure, not because of De Bruyne’s absence. City created plenty of chances but it’s not unfair to say they lacked a cutting edge against Sheffield United. Against better teams, they can’t afford to be as wasteful.
They were also bailed out of a bit of a hole by Rodri, whose primary function is to keep things ticking over at the base of midfield. His winning goal was inadvertently set up by Phil Foden, and he should play a more prominent role through the middle over the next few weeks and months.
Eberechi Eze, Lucas Paqueta or somebody of that ilk would undoubtedly be nice for City, strengthening their hand further as they bid to win absolutely everything again. But nice is perhaps the best way to describe it – it isn’t necessary, the players they have just need to be a little crisper than they were here.
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