- Daniel Gallagher-Parker
Erling Haaland and Julian Alvarez pairing provides Guardiola and Man City exciting alternatives
With Manchester City making clear in recent hours that Julian Alvarez is part of Pep Guardiola's plans for the forthcoming season – following speculation of a loan move away – we take a look at some of the potential ways the Premier League champions could lineup next season, as we prepare to welcome two of the most exciting centre-forward prospects in recent times.
It must be stressed from the start, that this is all hypothetical and we are merely trying to present what Guardiola could do in the year ahead. Despite every football journalist, pundit, fan, and other coaches trying to predict the Catalan's next move, even when you think all the bases are covered, he still manages to surprise everyone.
In what has been a very nostalgic few weeks for City fans, they reminisced of 93:20, 10 years(!) since the moment. A time when the Blues had FOUR world-class strikers in an 18-man matchday squad, in the form of Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli, and Edin Dzeko.
Then you compare that to the season just gone, where the club did not have a single registered senior centre-forward, barring Gabriel Jesus, who was largely deployed out wide until the final month of the campaign.
The striker issue had to be addressed, and the club were quick to respond by acquiring Alvarez from River Plate in January and laying the groundwork for an Erling Haaland swoop in the months that followed, which did indeed result in the big Norweigan choosing City.
A lot of discussions were sparked after one of City's new strikers produced a six-goal haul for their current club. As Haaland's season with Borussia Dortmund had already come to an end, it could only have been Alvarez.
The Argentine notched an incredibly impressive double hat-trick in the early hours of Thursday morning last week in River Plate's 8-1 victory over Alianza Lima in the Copa Libertadores.
So, with the 22-year-old making a huge statement on the same day it was published that City CEO Ferran Soriano had said: ‘We have had many offers from clubs to loan Alvarez, but he is not going to leave. He will do the pre-season, and I think he will stay’; it begs the question: what is Guardiola planning to do with his two new lethal centre-forwards?
It is worth noting that the club were so keen to be working with the striker they were convinced to pay an extra €1.5million to have him join in the summer rather than in January 2023.
The talented River Plate star is versatile as well, as he has the ability to fill in on either wing if the boss ever feels necessary – and we all know what Guardiola is like, so we would not be surprised to see him out wide a few times next term.
Alvarez has 18 goal contributions in 17 appearances in all club competitions this season (14G/4A), scoring three or more goals on three separate occasions, whilst also netting his first goal for his country. The #9 is averaging a club goal every 102 minutes this season; to put that into context, Aguero, who has the fastest goal-per-minute ratio in Premier League history, grabbed a goal every 108 minutes.
We doubt you will need reminding, but Aguero was not exactly shy at racking up the goals in 90 minutes himself, as he is the player with the most hat tricks (12) in Premier League history, with multiple immense goal hauls of his own – hitting Newcastle for five in 2015 and four against Leicester in 2018.
Despite Alvarez's great goal scoring record, it is hard to believe that Haaland, who chose the blue side of Manchester over Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, will have done so if he did not think he was going to be the main man.
At the end of the day, you do not buy the most sought-after young talent in world football to rotate him every other game. The Norwegian striker scored at an incredible rate of a goal every 82 minutes in all club competitions last season, scoring 29 times in 30 appearances while also creating eight goals for his teammates.
If you cast your mind back to the early stages of the 17/18 and 18/19 seasons, most notably, the 6-1 win against Huddersfield Town, Guardiola occasionally deployed a 3-5-2 system, with City's all-time leading goalscorer, Aguero, and Gabriel Jesus, who may well not be in a sky blue shirt for a seventh season, leading the line.
The Catalan did not use the formation that often, primarily opting for his traditional 4-3-3, but with the possibility of signing Marc Cucurella from Brighton and Hove Albion, there is a chance that the four-time Premier League-winning manager could experiment once again.
Aymeric Laporte really stepped up during this season's run-in, continuing to play for the remainder of the season despite picking up a knee injury against Wolves. No one can forget Ruben Dias and John Stones' partnership in 2020/21, and with Nathan Ake proving his worth, the Dutchman would be a more than competent backup defender if Guardiola did decide to partner up all three of City's main centre-half options at once.
This is without even mentioning that Kyle Walker is very capable of playing as the right-sided centre-back in a three-at-the-back formation, as Gareth Southgate was so keen on proving when he picked the 32-year-old for international duty in 2018.
All this leaving Joao Cancelo to be as creative as he desires as the right-wing-back.
Something worth considering here is that Guardiola has occasionally deployed Bernardo Silva alongside the holding midfielder, most often Rodri, in the traditional 4-3-3 to enable increased control of games and a greater attacking influence for Kevin De Bruyne – and this is something that could be replicated in a three-at-the-back system.
The two new strikers joining Guardiola's side in the summer will not be the only ones who have to adapt; the squad as a whole will have to adapt to having an out-and-out striker once again. Players like Phil Foden will benefit from being able to find rhythm in one position rather than constantly rotating across the front three.
What do the arrivals of Haaland and Alvarez mean for the likes of club-record signing Jack Grealish and, now likely to be club captain, Ilkay Gundogan? The Premier League final day hero has been heavily linked with a move away from Manchester recently, but he has said he is looking forward to the remaining year on his existing contract.
Guardiola could potentially choose to use Grealish as the left-sided central midfielder, which is where most fans were expecting him to play this season, but as Bernardo never parted ways, the Portugal international occupied that position for the majority of the season. Before City's #10 joined, he played a third of his games for Aston Villa in the 20/21 season in midfield.
City's record signing ended the season with six goals and four assists. His three strikes in the Premier League came in the second game of the season against Norwich City, on his Etihad Stadium debut in a City shirt, another in the 7-0 demolition of Leeds, and then he popped up with a vital goal to spark City's comeback in their penultimate game of the season against West Ham United.
Grealish's mainstream stats may not seem all that impressive, but as he and Guardiola have reminded viewers plenty of times throughout the season, he is topping the charts for his underlying stats, including key passes in open play per 90 in the Premier League this season, with only De Bruyne ahead, and having figures such as a 0.30 xA (expected assists) per 90 and a 0.52 xG + xA (expected goals and assists) per 90.
The 26-year-old's underlying numbers have been impressive, so will the introduction of clinical goalscorers improve his mainstream stats?
Fellow England international Kalvin Phillips, who has been instrumental for both England and Leeds in recent times, could be the next Englishman to move to Manchester to work with Guardiola, with the midfielder heavily linked as Fernandinho's replacement.
Here are two possible formations we believe Guardiola could potentially use – but, as always with the City boss, no one actually knows what he is planning!
As Guardiola reminded Sky Sports on the final day, he will have the luxury of making five substitutions next season; joking that we would see how much of a real genius he is.
There is simply no way of knowing how the champions will lineup when the first whistle of the season is blown, but the acquisitions of two strikers opens the possibility of a dimension of football we have not seen under Guardiola for a number of years, and it could well reignite the likes of Grealish and Raheem Sterling, who will have that striker to play off and feed in the box – as well as allowing Foden to stay out wide or play deeper, where he can easily change games.
However, it also raises the question as to whether an out and out striker, or two starting at once, would result in a lack of fluidity and control provided by the false nine system, threatening more transition football, which Guardiola has openly admitted his side are not built to play.
Ultimately, though, the signings of Alvarez and Haaland promise to add dynamism and a clinical nature to the frontline and make the side more unpredictable as the Blues look to achieve three consecutive Premier League titles and their fifth in six seasons, as well as hopefully providing the missing final touch on big European nights as we saw over both legs against Madrid in the semi-finals of this season's Champions League.
Photos courtesy of Getty Images
Written by: @DanGP17_