Erling Haaland scored twice for Manchester City to an eventful 5-3 victory over Yokohama F Marinos on Sunday in the sweltering heat of Tokyo.
At half-time in City’s first pre-season match, Pep Guardiola made 10 substitutions, giving us a 45-minute glimpse of basically everyone on the tour, with the exception of Ederson on the bench, the injured Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva, who had half an hour left before being replaced by Argentinian youngster Maximo Perrone.
So, with nearly everyone on board, who’s performance was particularly noteworthy?
Shortly after Yokohama scored their first goal of the night, City analysts checked the replay and highlighted how the midfielder pushed too hard to regain the ball and was bypassed, making the whole thing very difficult for the team behind (not that the defense was particularly great, but I must say).
That midfielder was Kovacic, and his City career, which he signed from Chelsea for £25m last month, didn’t get off to a glorious start, considering he lost the ball on an ambitious through-pass attempt from the halfway line in the first place.
Interestingly, understanding when to press and when to drop is something Rodri had to learn in his debut season at City in 2019-20, and while the Croatian played a different role here (as a more attacking midfielder compared to Rodri’s holding task), it’s a good reminder of the adaptations many newcomers have to go through at the club.
But there were other highlights in the host team’s unfortunate contribution to the opening goal. It was Kovacic’s second through of the night, the first coming from about 35 yards and angled behind Julian Alvarez. It also failed to find a target, but the very intention to play such a pass is certainly a good sign.
Guardiola stressed at the end of last season that his team had missed a pass to Haaland “10-25” early in the season, and that it was still an area he wanted to improve despite his team’s continued treble-winning streak. Even City’s top players such as Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo missed clear opportunities to play for Haaland last season – so did Phil Foden here in the second half – so it’s good to have someone willing to try those passes.
There is no doubt that the more Kovacic finds his feet, the more accurate it will be.
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It was a tumultuous first half for Phillips. City analysts were puzzled when he miscontrolled a pass from goalkeeper Stefan Ortega. Phillips was then handed the ball by the Yokohama keeper in midfield, but was again given the ball straight out of control. The home team added a second goal by putting a fast ball in the back, but the defense was not good either.
Shortly after, Phillips scored City’s first goal with a superb cross-field pass, then stole the ball from the opposition goalkeeper to equalize for Alvarez.
How would you rate it, especially after a very difficult debut season with the club?
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Rodri’s far more solid performance after the break highlighted the immediate challenges the England international faced, even so early in the season, but something strange happened. This won’t be a simple case of a City player doing well in his second season — Phillips has more room to make up than the likes of Rodri, Jack Grealish and Bernardo after missing minutes last season — but if he can turn things around it would be very welcome news.
City analysts were thrilled again when Foden stormed in midfield. Guardiola intends to use the Englishman in the role of De Bruyne, which is something to look forward to next season. And in the Champions League final, he turned and dribbled well, only to show it in a meek shot.
We saw a glimpse of it here as well, as Foden missed a one-on-one in the second half. And after a failed through pass, analysts were making gestures that suggested the final pass, or shot, needed a little more improvement. Again, it’s still early days, but if the official staff takes it seriously, everyone will.
There was another instance that frustrated analysts a little later when Foden turned again and dashed forward majestically but missed a pass to Haaland. That’s exactly what Guardiola wants to improve.
Unlike Kovacic and Phillips, Foden is a much more well-known player and the idea of him running through midfield next season is an exciting one for both City and England. Adding a little bit of sharpness to his last third works really well because everything up to it becomes breathtaking.
City will likely sign a right winger in the coming weeks to replace Riyad Mahrez. That is certainly the intention once the Algerian player completes his move to Saudi Arabian club Al Ahly.
But a move is far from a certainty, and after teenage Rico Ruiz spearheaded City’s young squad with his pre-season performances last year and an unexpected first-team entry, it’s unclear whether Bob, who just turned 20 a little over a week ago, can fill the void if needed.
The Norwegian winger is exactly what Guardiola wants from Weidman at the moment. There are more touches in tight spaces than quick jumps backwards. And he came on at half-time before dancing down the right side and cutting inside with a nice cross to the far post. It was typical of Mahrez.
He has the pace too and City wingers can or should certainly do it, but it’s important to know what to do at the right time and Bob certainly seems to have it. And with six goals and 17 assists to his name last season and being named City Under-23 Player of the Year for the second year in a row, he’s certainly made his contribution as part of the youth squad.
Guardiola doesn’t want Cancelo in the City squad next season, but at the moment he has no choice but to keep it going.
Cancelo nearly lost an easy ball, then regained it, quickly pulled out a nutmeg and fired a shot that epitomized how he came to be known. He is a maverick compared to the mythical consistency of the defenders who helped City to a treble last season.
Of course he is capable of more than that, and although he scored a good assist for Haaland in the closing minutes of the game, his reputation among the fan base is declining, and I must say that even within the club he is declining.
Guardiola’s praise for City’s ‘proper’ defenders after winning the Champions League final was probably not pointed out, but it did highlight the stark difference in the back line compared to the days when Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko (a player Guardiola dearly loves) were at the side.
Given Cancelo’s exit situation, the same cannot be said. Guardiola has been desperate to let Cancelo out in the winter transfer window after a long spell in camp. It’s hard to imagine any salvation story.
“He’s here,” Guardiola said on Saturday. “Joan has been very important to us so far. He’s back here and part of the group. Let’s see what happens.”
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That’s a perfunctory answer, given that Cancelo has been given 45 minutes here in Tokyo and doesn’t have much of an appetite for more minutes in preseason games. There are also reports that a Saudi club refused to sign him when approached by his agent, Jorge Mendes, and if that is true, his options are severely limited.
At the moment it’s difficult for City to get a good deal, even for a top player, but if they can sign Cancelo at least a little bit, City will be happy enough.
(Top photo: Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)