Would City survive another season without a proper number 9?

Over the past two seasons, Man City’s reliance on an out and out striker has declined. Sergio Aguero was the club’s talisman for nearly a decade. But the Argentinian departed the club earlier in the summer window, linking up with Spanish giants Barcelona in his twilight years.

Gabriel Jesus of Manchester City goal

With Aguero leaving the club, Gabriel Jesus was left as City’s only senior striker. The Brazilian forward is now City’s sole striker heading into the new season. The transfer window closed on August 31st, and the Citizens are running out of time to bring in a new striker.

But will the Premier League champions need a recognised striker to remain competitive in the 2021/22 season? The bookmakers over at Coral Football Betting certainly believe it’s possible, so let’s evaluate how Pep’s men may be able to do it:

Use of False Nine Last Season/Will Midfielders be enough?

In the 2020/21 season, City maintained their lead at the top of the Premier League, progressed to the latter stages of the Champions League and FA Cup and won the Carabao Cup. Throughout their extended campaign, which consisted of 61 matches, City didn’t struggle for goals. Overall, the Citizens netted 131 goals in all competitions last season.

Most of their goalscoring success was achieved without a striker for large spells of the season. A 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation was often used by Guardiola as his attacking midfielders interchange when attacking. Kevin De Bruyne and Fernan Torres were often the linchpins of the attacks, playing in the false nine role, a little deeper than a traditional number nine.

The attacking midfielders and wingers in Guardiola’s side benefitted hugely from the system. Ilkay Gundogan (17), Phil Foden (16), Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus (14), Ferran Torres (13) and Kevin De Bruyne (10) led City’s goalscoring charts in all competitions. In comparison, Sergio Aguero only scored six goals in 20 appearances for the Citizens last season. However, the 33-year-old was injured for large spells of the season.

Early season line-ups suggest that Guardiola will stick with his preferred 4-3-3 formation this season, with the option of reverting to 4-2-3-1. The Spanish manager has used 4-3-3 in the opening two matches against Tottenham and Norwich. He even played Jesus in the right-wing position in the 5-0 win over the Canaries at the Etihad. After the game, Jesus highlighted his desire to continue playing out wide this season in a bid to help create chances, as well as score.

City can certainly score goals without a recognised number nine in their team. They proved last season that there is enough talent from midfield to both create and score chances. The addition of Jack Grealish, who signed from Aston Villa for £100 million in August, highlights Guardiola’s preference to rely on fluid midfielders rather than an out and out striker.

Do City Need a Number 9 to be Successful?

Although City have proven success without a striker, going into the 2021/22 season without the option of a number nine could backfire in the bigger matches.

In the 1-0 loss against Tottenham in City’s first Premier League match of the season, there was already a sign of how a strike could have benefited the team. Guardiola fielded Fernan Torres as the false nine and also started Grealish, Sterling, Mahrez and Gündoğan. Unsurprisingly, City dominated possession with 65% and had 18 shots against Spurs. However, they didn’t really threaten and organised Tottenham, who soaked up the pressure, allowed City to move the ball around and eventually scored on the counter-attack.

The loss against Spurs had similarities to City’s Champions League 1-0 final defeat against Chelsea at the end of the 2020/21 season. In this match, Guardiola played De Bruyne as the false nine, and he played four attacking midfielders and two wingers. Again, City had control of possession (61%), but they were undone countless times on the counter, with Kai Havertz netting the winner at the end of the first half.

While the fluid 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 may pay off against lower league sides, such as Norwich, City could benefit from an out and out striker in high-profile matches. These fixtures can be decided by a moment of brilliance or by a striker taking up a natural position and putting pressure on the defence. Harry Kane, Mo Salah and Sergio Aguero have all produced such moments in big games in the past. For City, the option of a number of this mould would represent a good alternative option. While a striker may not be required week in week out at the Etihad, their presence for the big games would suit City.

City may not rely on a 10 to 20 goal a season forward as some of their Premier League rivals do. However, having the option to change tact could be useful in a long season where the Citizens will be defending their Premier League and EFL Cup titles and pushing for European success in the Champions League.

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