The lead changed hands in injury-time at the Etihad Stadium. Not in a game that Manchester City had already won, but Gabriel Jesus’ second goal against Wolves took their specialist strikers to six Premier League goals for the season. They have leapfrogged the centre-backs, who remain rooted on five between them.
If this strangely close contest reflects Sergio Aguero’s year-long wait for a league goal, a consequence of COVID-19, self-isolating and injury, it also highlights another trend. Jesus’ double on Tuesday may not earn him a start in Sunday’s Manchester derby.
This has felt the season of Pep Guardiola’s favourite tactic. He has gone peak Pep. The false nine has gone from Plan B to Plan A, from a tactic occasionally unveiled to surprise, to one which opponents can predict; just not stop.
Now the element of surprise can come from the identity of the false nine. At Barcelona, it was invariably Lionel Messi. At City, Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva and Kevin de Bruyne have all taken their turns as the supposed spearhead. Wingers Raheem Sterling and Ferran Torres have also deputised in the middle of the attack; the Spaniard has played most like an actual No. 9 and the Englishman’s record of predatory finishes in recent years mean he can do a plausible impression of a poacher. It is a moot point if he qualifies as a false nine anymore.
But now it feels that the bigger the game, the falser the nine Guardiola chooses. It was De Bruyne away at Chelsea, in what was arguably City’s best performance of the season; it was Foden away at Liverpool, in their best result. De Bruyne and Silva alternated in the role at Arsenal. It was Mahrez away at Old Trafford in this season’s Carabao Cup semi-final; twelve months earlier, in the same fixture, Silva and De Bruyne were both false nines in a 4-2-4-0 formation.
Manchester United may consider themselves forewarned. City have won their last two derbies when they played a false nine, but none of the last four when they have had a more conventional striker. Guardiola is likelier to omit a specialist centre-forward for the tougher tests.
And while he is in the uncharted territory of a fifth season at the same club, perhaps the consequence of that extra time is that it has enabled him to assemble and coach a squad with more false nines than virtually any other. He trialled De Bruyne in the role in 2016, dropping Aguero for a Champions League tie at Barcelona. Foden, though, would not have been ready for it until recently. A few months ago, before Ilkay Gundogan’s sudden transformation into a goalscorer, Guardiola surprised by naming the German as a potential false nine.
Gundogan can instead benefit from the system as a more orthodox, box-to-box midfielder, materialising in the space a striker might occupy and which a false nine has vacated. He has become more prolific, taking on greater scoring responsibilities, when there is no real centre-forward. He got braces at West Bromwich Albion and Liverpool and the opener at Chelsea in false-nine games.
For Guardiola, the high priest of the midfielder, it is another way of outnumbering and outwitting in the centre of the pitch, of crowbarring another passer into his team. His tactic of deploying Joao Cancelo as the full-back who doubled up as a midfielder has not escaped attention.
In a way, he is now using five central midfielders: Rodri and Cancelo often in deeper roles, behind three more attacking presences, with the two wingers the most advanced players. It gives him two wing-halves, three inside-forwards and no centre-forward.
It also reflects form and quality. Gundogan has been exceptional this season and deserves to play. Silva, after a difficult campaign last year, is almost at the level he displayed during his stellar 2018/19. De Bruyne is City’s outstanding talent, a man capable of things few others can even envisage. The probability is that all three will start on Sunday. This guess is that the Belgian will be the false nine. But if it is not him, it will probably be another.
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