Guardiola’s latest Delph experiment fails but Man City overtake Arsenal at Premier League summit
Manchester City moved top of the Premier League table thanks to their 3-1 win over Arsenal, but there was a strange tactical decision from Pep Guardiola.
One of the most bizarre moves of the January transfer window saw Joao Cancelo allowed to leave Man City on loan to Bayern Munich. He had been replaced in the starting XI by the impressive Rico Lewis but it was still a bold move, with no alternative coming in.
It meant that whenever Lewis is out of form, injured, or just needs resting, Guardiola is forced to experiment. On Wednesday at the Emirates that experiment was Bernardo Silva at left-back, and it did not work.
Guardiola has experience playing central midfielders at left-back, even winning Premier League titles with Fabian Delph playing there, and the Spaniard referenced the former Man City man in explaining his Silva decision.
“We have many players who can play there – Sergio [Gomez], Rico [Lewis] and now Bernardo [Silva] can,” he told Amazon Prime before the match.
“When you are an intelligent player and can read what is going on, like my lovely Fabian Delph and like Oleksandr [Zinchenko], you can play in other places – it’s because they are intelligent players.”
It was a familiar hybrid role for Silva, moving into central midfield whenever Man City had the ball and dropping to left-back as Arsenal attacked, which they did frequently. And that meant Silva had to go up against Saka, a battle he did not do well in.
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Understandably, Arsenal loaded their attacking play down their right flank to specifically target Silva and it took nine minutes for the Portuguese man to get his first foul on Saka. A pretty cynical challenge, some Arsenal fans were calling for Anthony Taylor to show a yellow card, and even more came for Silva’s second foul on Saka in the 26th minute.
Two minutes later, Silva’s lack of defensive experienced showed as he let a ball through to Saka inside the box, but the Englishman couldn’t get the ball out of his feet quick enough and his eventual pass was blocked.
By that point, Man City were 1-0 up as Kevin De Bruyne capitalised on a defensive error from Takehiro Tomiyasu, reading the Japanese full-back’s more backpass before beautifully lifting the ball over Aaron Ramsdale.
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Saka did eventually get himself on the scoresheet for the equaliser, but surprisingly Silva didn’t have a role in this goal. Instead, it was from the penalty spot with Ederson penalised for a foul on Eddie Nketiah. The Brazilian then tried to psych out Saka, pointing which direction he would be diving, but the Arsenal man won the battle, calling Ederson’s bluff so calmly.
It was Saka’s eighth Premier League goal this season, to go with eight assists, highlighting just how brilliant he has been for Arsenal in their title charge.
The Englishman continued to run at Silva and a third foul just before half-time finally brought a yellow card, but it wasn’t until the 60th minute that Guardiola made the tactical switch. On came Manuel Akanji, but for Riyad Mahrez, with Silva moving forward and the Portuguese midfielder played his role in Jack Grealish’s goal, intercepting Gabriel’s pass to set the move in motion.
An experiment Guardiola may not have planned to repeat anyway, given its lack of success, the Man City boss admitted after the game: “My tactics in the first half, they were horrible.”
He may also do well to look back at what Silva gave as a reason for him leaving Benfica before trying him at left-back again.
“When Jorge Jesus played me as a full-back at the 1st team trainings I realised I had no future at Benfica,” he said in 2016.