Is Pep Guardiola lacking options & should Man City’s squad depth be criticised compared to Liverpool?

Manchester City had just 12 fit, senior outfield players at Wembley, and that small pool of stars could impact their ability to beat Liverpool to the Premier League and Champions League crowns.

Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final was billed as another meeting between the world’s top sides, coming just six days after Manchester City and Liverpool had played out such a thrilling and technical contest at the Etihad.

But for all the ability both sides possess, Liverpool’s victory was based as much on physical resilience as footballing talent.

Not that Jurgen Klopp’s men weren’t excellent in possession at Wembley, and in truth, the 3-2 scoreline flattered a City side that were second best for the vast majority of the game.

It was a nervy, error-prone performance from the Premier League champions, one which is just not in keeping with the well-oiled machine so often deployed at the Etihad.

The first eight minutes alone gave City supporters ample warning of what was to come, with Zack Steffen kicking the ball straight out of play, Bernardo Silva and John Stones misplacing passes in their own third, while Oleksandr Zinchenko was tackled in City’s corner.

It was a frustrating game for Manchester City at Wembley. Credit: Getty.

Soon after, Ibrahima Konate had risen highest in the box and planted a header into the back of the net, and it didn’t take long for Liverpool to add a second via Steffen’s error, with Sadio Mane tackling the ball into the opposition goal.

It was a performance riddled with individual mistakes by City, with Phil Foden and Silva, usually so precise with their passing, missing their target with uncharacteristic regularity, while the front three of Gabriel Jesus, Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling simply couldn’t get into the first half.

In the relatively recent rivalry between these clubs, that opening 45 minutes arguably represented Liverpool’s most dominant period against Pep Guardiola’s side, as the Merseysiders suffocated City, made it impossible for them to build any rhythm, and then zipped the ball around them in midfield.

Fabinho, Naby Kieta and Thiago were outstanding in the first half, with the latter orchestrating the Reds’ repeated raids forward. It was no surprise Liverpool made it 3-0 before half-time, with Mane squirming a shot past Steffen again.

While City were better after the break, that three-goal deficit proved insurmountable, despite Grealish and Silva netting, and then a flurry of late chances in injury-time which so nearly forced an additional 30 minutes.

Bernardo Silva scored late on to make injury-time interesting on Saturday. Credit: Getty.

Why were City so far off Liverpool?

Weariness was evidently a huge factor in City’s subpar showing, despite the two clubs playing at almost identical times in their five games since the recent international break.

The difference lies in how Klopp has managed and maintained his group over a gruelling 12-day period that has seen titanic tussles with their nearest rivals preceded by Champions League quarter-final legs.

That’s a luxury Guardiola simply hasn’t been afforded. It’s not that he’s chosen not to rest and rotate, the Catalan simply hasn’t had the opportunity to.

That’s because this City squad lags massively behind their rivals in terms of depth.

But how? How have the club with the deepest pockets assembled a team lacking one of the basic requirements for competing across multiple fronts?

Pep Guardiola doesn’t have the same options at his disposal as Jurgen Klopp can boast. Credit: Getty.

City’s recent transfer policy is a subject for much bigger exploration at another stage, but there are certainly questions to be asked about decisions made over the last few windows, such as the sale of Ferran Torres, the decision to purchase Jack Grealish for £100m, and opting to play an entire season without a recognised striker.

However, Saturday’s mediocre performance wasn’t merely the result of City’s recruitment, but a combination of several factors.

City’s undersized squad selection

Dissecting the dearth of options available to Guardiola is not just an impulsive response to Saturday’s loss. ManchesterWorld highlighted in September that City’s lack of depth could impede them over the course of the season, one which began in August with the Premier League champions having a playing squad of 23.

But Benjamin Mendy’s suspension by the club following charges of rape and sexual assault, and the sale of Torres, reduced that to 21, of which three are goalkeepers.

The injuries to Kyle Walker, Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan represented the acme of City’s selection dilemmas this season, while Aymeric Laporte was deemed needing of a rest and Ruben Dias and Cole Palmer are still working their way back from respective injuries.

Kevin De Bruyne was missing on Saturday with injury. Credit: Getty.

In addition, there’s been a reluctance from Guardiola to hand minutes to academy players this season, even if Saturday’s showpiece occassion certainly wasn’t the moment to start bedding in youth-team graduates.

But those unique set of circumstances left Guardiola with just 12 outfield senior players to select from at Wembley.

Twelve!

Liverpool’s contrasting freshness

Meanwhile, of Liverpool’s starting XI in the semi-final, only three - Alisson, Konate and Kieta, played the full 90 minutes in midweek as Klopp’s side eliminated Benfica from Europe. Indeed, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson didn’t play at all in the 3-3 draw at Anfield.

It’s partly what led to the inequalities between City and Liverpool, with the Sky Blues’ energy-sapping trip to Madrid impacting the team’s ability to play with their usual intensity. That City’s two best players on Saturday were centre-backs John Stones and Nathan Ake is telling, while it also highlighted the impact Rodri has in the centre of the park.

The difference in sharpness showed throughout the game, and there must be a real concern for Guardiola that this could continue to impact results over the coming weeks, even if he should be able to call upon Dias, Laporte, De Bruyne and Gundogan soon.

But there’s a case to be made that the lack of options has, in fact, been limiting City for a number of weeks. They’ve now been victorious in just three of the last eight, and have failed to win seven of the last 17.

That’s far from a calamitous record, but considering City won 15 from 16 across a period spanning November to January - the exception being a Champions League dead rubber away to RB Leipzig - there’s no denying their levels have dropped as the season moved into the spring.

Returning to those sorts of standards could be imperative if City hope to pip an inexorable Liverpool to the Premier League and Champions League crowns come May.

For all the talk of this immense, preminent rivalry between the world’s two best clubs, where the silverware ultimately ends up could be determined by who’s fresher and fitter, rather than which side is actually better.