Manchester City’s seemingly inevitable procession towards the Premier League title hit a surprising bump last weekend as Antonio Conte’s then dead-in-the-water Spurs side pulled off yet another unlikely win over Pep’s City behemoth. (That, by the way, makes it 5 wins and 1 draw for the North London side in their last 10 head-to-heads, for anyone keeping score at home). However, Guardiola and his men are still odds-on favourites to claim a fourth title in five years; the three point cushion, easier remaining schedule, and home advantage in the crunch league tie with rivals Liverpool making them around 2/9 with most bookies, compared to 10/3 for Klopp and co. But you don’t need to be the Sherlock Holmes of the footballing world to recognise that City’s primary target this year (and every year since the Abu Dhabi takeover for that matter) is not the Premier League crown. It is, of course, the Champions League. How will this pursuit affect City's lineups for Premier League fixtures?
Pep and City will almost certainly prioritize the Champions League over the Premier League
Based on last season's data and this season's narratives, this (from a fantasy perspective) is bad news for Foden and KDB rosterers, but could be exploited by trying to acquire the likes of Zinchenko, Stones, and Grealish (injury pending).
One of the primary reasons for City seeking out Pep Guardiola back in the summer of 2016 was reportedly his winning experience in the competition, having lifted the trophy twice whilst managing Barcelona. Five and half years later, football’s ultimate prize has still managed to elude Pep and City, but they do seem to be inching closer to their Everest. A second round defeat to Monaco back in 2017 was followed by a trio of quarter final defeats before last season saw them come as close as it gets when they lost 1-0 to Chelsea in the final – a game which saw Guardiola probably over-think his game plan against a side that had finished 19 points worse off than them in the league.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this European prioritization is being increasingly reflected in the sides that Guardiola selects in the Premier League. In last season’s tantalizingly close encounter with European glory, Guardiola did a quite un-Pep-like thing and continued to roll out a consistent core of players throughout the knockout stages. The Monchengladbach second round, Dortmund quarter-final, PSG semi-final, and Chelsea final were all exceedingly close affairs (at least on the scoreboard), with none of the seven matches settled by more than a two goal margin. This, along with the previous four years of disappointment and a Premier League title “race” that was over by mid-February, suggest that Guardiola was intent on playing his strongest 11 when it mattered most.
Six players (Ederson, Walker, Dias, Gundogan, Silva, and Foden) started in all seven Champions League knockout matches, whilst a further three (Stones, De Bruyne, and Mahrez) started in six. These were, clearly, City’s biggest games of the season. But if we expand our selection to some of the other significant hurdles that they faced we may be able to get an ever better sense for who Pep was trusting in those important moments.
By adding in the opening two Champions League groups games (which naturally are very crucial in laying the foundations for progress but also happened to be against their toughest opponents in the group: Porto and Marseille), the F.A. Cup semi-final (vs Chelsea), EFL Cup final (vs Tottenham), and Premier League double-headers against Liverpool (the previous season’s champions) and Manchester United (their closest rivals both from a point’s perspective and a traditional, fan perspective), we are left with 15 “big games” played by Manchester City during the 2020-21 season.
The percentage of Big Games (BG%) that each player played last season should give us an idea about their importance to Pep. But what may also help is to also compare this to the percentage of Other Games (OG%) they played (that is, the remaining 46 games played by City across those four competitions previously mentioned). By comparing BG% and OG%, we can see who Guardiola feels is not only important, but important enough that they warrant resting in less meaningful matches*. And this is where we eventually hit on the fantasy relevance of this discussion. Which players are likely to be warming the bench after months of catapulting our fantasy teams to glory? Should we be worried for the likes of Cancelo and De Bruyne? Are there valuable streamers we can pick up due to this rotation? Ultimately, as we enter the serious stages of the Champions League, is there anything that history can teach us to help navigate the predictable unpredictability of Pep Roulette?
*There are, of course, caveats to this. In particular, injuries to the squad, the number of players who can adequately fill in at a position, and the lower physical load of certain positions will all affect line-up selections (which may explain the high OG% for the likes of Dias, Ederson, and Rodri, below).
Based on the calculation of Importance above, last season Pep’s strongest eleven included Ederson; a defence of Walker, Cancelo, Dias, and Stones shielded by Rodri; and then an attacking collection of Gundogan, Mahrez, De Bruyne, Sterling, and Foden, with the latter three rotating as a false nine (as you can see below on the left).
That is the past though. What about this season? For a side that won the league & Carabao Cup, while also reaching the final of the Champions League and the semi-finals of the F.A. Cup, a revolution was hardly needed, and that is how it played out. Jack Grealish was the very notable signing brought in, whilst a few players (all in the bottom half of the above table, it should be noted) were allowed to leave. The biggest changes, perhaps, have been within the existing players.
Bernardo Silva has done the unthinkable by managing to start every single Premier League game so far, and Joao Cancelo is only one behind him. The Portuguese pair have been on exceptional form and are probably the two main reasons why City find themselves in such a strong position for silverware. The other to see his stock rise this season is Aymeric Laporte. Free from injury, the centre-back has become Pep’s preferred partner for Ruben Dias, displacing the previously favoured John Stones.
Aside from Stones, the other names to have seen their star status dim a little are Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez, and Kevin De Bruyne (though injuries have probably been the primary reason for the latter’s absences this term). With Silva now surely considered a lock-in for the starting eleven, Gundogan may struggle to regain his lofty standing of a year ago. But Mahrez is a more complicated case. It was notable that Guardiola brought him back in for the first leg of the Champions League second round matchup – a game City won 5-0 with the Algerian opening the scoring – and he’s actually started two of the last three in the league. Still, that makes just the ten so far this season – below his positional rivals Jack Grealish and Gabriel Jesus (both 15). Had Jesus and Grealish been fit (or perhaps in the latter’s case, not constantly in the dog-house for off-field issues), then Mahrez would likely see that BG% of 73 from last season come down considerably this year. All in all, my guess is that Pep makes just two changes in his strongest eleven from last season (as seen below on the right).
So with a bit of help from the data of last season, combined with the current narratives of this one, we have identified who will probably form the core of City’s Champions League games for here on out*. The next step is to explore how much change we are likely to see in the Premier League games that City play either side of crunch European encounters.
*Note, the convincing 5-0 first leg win over Sporting may be enough for Pep to consider prioritising the Premier League matchup against Manchester United (on March 6th) over the second leg tie (on March 9th), though, as we have shown, this is likely to be a one off.
Again, taking last season as a guide, we can analyse the number of line-up changes Guardiola made before and after a Champions League tie. In short, it was a lot. The average number of changes to the Premier League line-up from the Champions League matchup that either preceded or followed it was 5.4, which is a notable increase from the 3.1 of 2018-19 (has European success taken on even greater importance??). What’s more, this number was dependent upon the number of days between the two games: when there was a gap of just three or four days, the number of changes climbed to 6.7, whilst when the gap was five or more days, it dropped to 2.5 (see figure below).
A further interesting nuance of the data is that Pep seemed to show a slight inclination towards disregarding the Premier League matches that occur after a Champions League game more so than the Premier League matches that occur before a Champions League game. Even when constraining this to those games with just a three or four day gap (admittedly making a small sample size even smaller), we see that the average number of changes to a Premier League line-up made post-Europe was 7.5, compared to “just” 6.0 for pre-Europe.
What does all of this mean, then, for fantasy managers? Most likely it is this: prepare for chaos. The below image shows Manchester City’s remaining schedule – they have a potential 21 games to squeeze into just 91 days…and that’s not even including the 8 days set aside in March for the international break. Three/four day turnarounds are going to be the norm, not the anomaly, for the remainder of the season, so we should expect to see Pep return to his roulette routes (something that, despite his reputation, he has largely departed from this year).
Okay, so we’ve seen acknowledged the prioritisation of Europe; we’ve identified the likely strongest City eleven, and we’ve learned that rotation will return. The final question, of course, is where this rotation will be. The below table covers a lot of what we’ve already discussed, but the right side displays which players were given the day off (at least from the starting line-up) in the Premier League fixture either side of a Champions League match.
*John Stones was sent off against Aston Villa and therefore suspended for the Crystal Palace and Chelsea games. Whether he would have been rested had this not occurred is unknown, though in the above table we have opted to not include him within the line-up change number.
Tallying these up we have perhaps a surprise leader on the “Rested” standings: Phil Foden. The young Englishman saw the bench on 10 separate occasions before or after starting in the Champions League, going to show, first, how important Pep felt he was for European success, but also perhaps how careful he needed to manage his minutes from a workload perspective. Ilkay Gundogan (9) and Kevin De Bruyne (8) are next up, but the more interesting name is the fourth highest on the list, that of Kyle Walker. Given Walker’s durability and high fitness levels it is surprising that the right back was protected so much by Pep (7 times to be exact), particularly given City’s relative lack of depth at fullback.
With all of that in mind, we can (foolishly) try our hand at Pep roulette for City’s remaining Premier League games. Here’s what I’ve got…
Six changes, on average, with only Ederson, Dias, Cancelo, Rodri, and Sterling keeping their places for most league games. Even then, there will almost certainly be occasions when Nathan Ake is given the nod over Dias, and possibly also when young Cole Palmer gets an opportunity in order to give someone like Sterling a rest (if City make it to the Champions League semi-finals then that gameweek 35 matchup against Leeds could be a tasty opportunity for the forward thinking fantasy manager).
Of the Roulette XI, Stones (66% rostered) and Zinchenko (37%) may be the two with the most fantasy relevance. The defenders have performed very nicely when called upon this year, with FP/G’s of 12.2 and 9.1, respectively, and may be the only immediate way into this City team from a fantasy perspective. You can, of course, try to trade someone in. Jack Grealish’s value is at an all-time low and with his current injury status (of which I am suspicious, for what it’s worth – I think it may be a bit of an excuse from Guardiola) he may be an easy acquisition. Similarly, Gabriel Jesus is set to return from injury this weekend and he may be another to enquire about.
By contrast, Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne rosterers should hear the alarm bells ringing loud and clear. Pep loves these two and they will likely be the fulcrum of this year’s Champions League charge, at least from an attacking perspective. And whilst you wouldn’t exactly call either of them “fragile”, they have both experienced their fair share of injuries in recent seasons too – meaning the cotton wool may be brought out to ensure they are fit and firing for European action. Moving them on now should be the goal for fantasy managers and if you can get anything in the van Dijk/Ward-Prowse range for Foden, or Raphinha/Bowen range for KDB, then it should be taken in a heartbeat.
So that about covers it. Predicting Pep Roulette was always going to be a long one, but congratulations if you made it this far, and more importantly – good luck with those City decisions for the remainder of the season!
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