When it comes to making tough selection calls and building a star-studded first XI, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side fall roughly into two different camps.
There are those players who accept to be dropped on the chin, without ever letting that chin sag to the ground.
Gabriel Jesus and Bernardo Silva – each reborn in the City squad after speculation that they could leave in the closed season – are among those who have been praised by Guardiola as never having “bad faces” when the things go against them.
John Stones, who scored for England midweek but has yet to play a minute of competition for City this quarter was praised as a member of the Good Faces Club by Guardiola during his press conference ahead of the Saturday’s Premier League game against Burnley.
Raheem Sterling, who lost his virtually stranded starter status earlier this year, does not fit into that camp – as evidenced by his interview at the FT Business of Sport US summit on Thursday.
“If there was the possibility of going elsewhere for more playing time, I would be open to that,” he said.
Much of Guardiola’s briefing on Friday was devoted to a discussion of Sterling’s current status and his future prospects at City.
‘Speak on the grass’
Sometimes such topics can bring out Pep’s thorny side, but the Catalan tactician was in a largely jovial mood despite having one of his star players helped spark huge media speculation.
Prior to some of his rambling tangents, Guardiola’s message to Sterling and the rest of his team was very clear.
“Raheem hopefully [continue to] to be an incredibly important player for us, ”he said.
“I don’t know if he wants to play more game time – like Riyadh [Mahrez] when he’s not playing and complaining, like Joao [Cancelo] when he is not playing, he complains.
“Some players complain and want to play all the time, but I can’t assure them. They know, I’ve spoken to them a few times.
“They always have to talk on the grass, on the pitch. This is the best time. Not just Raheem, all of them.”
In big clubs, the conjecture of how well coaches get along with their stars is an ongoing soap opera. With someone like Guardiola, it is only exacerbated.
Zlatan and the schoolchildren
This is likely due to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s scathing claim that Guardiola’s conquering Barcelona side were like ‘schoolchildren’. Ibrahimovic did not fit into this environment and was loaned out after a season.
The harmony within Pep’s squads is still seen through this prism. Are you a schoolboy, like Bernardo or Jesus, or are you the Zlatan type, like maybe Mahrez and Sterling?
Of course, these ends are unnecessary. There are only a handful of people in football history who behaved like Ibrahimovic did, while the school kids he referred to also happened to be some of the greatest players of all time. .
There are many factors that set Guardiola apart from his contemporaries, but he’s no different from anyone when it comes to picking 11 players who he believes will win a football game.
The good players have been praised as such because they spent periods outside City’s side. Their good attitude did not guarantee selection.
Likewise, if Sterling is fighting for a heads-up poker, that doesn’t mean he has no more playing cards in Manchester. He only has to look at the example of Cancelo.
A big money arrival from Juventus in the summer of 2019, most of his first season before the lockdown was a chore for Cancelo.
“He arrived last season and he was confused at first,” Guardiola said at a press conference in January.
“He was expecting something we can’t give him, but he’s a nice guy with a big heart and his physique is amazing.”
That thing City can’t offer is a guaranteed start, as Cancelo has sometimes found to their detriment.
But he revolved around a lackluster start to close 2019/20 as a starter, even if participating in the Champions League quarter-final loss to Lyon was a dubious reward.
By the time Guardiola praised Cancelo’s heart and physique, he was thriving as an attacking and reverse full-back – a key ingredient as City racked up an incredible 21-game winning streak in all competitions.
Unfortunately for the Portugal international, his form slipped after the Manchester derby defeat in early March.
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He was dropped for the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Borussia Dortmund and replaced in the semi-final first leg at Paris Saint-Germain. Bad faces all around, and Oleksandr Zinchenko was unsurprisingly preferred to Cancelo for the final.
And yet, ahead of Burnley’s game, the 27-year-old was ubiquitous in the Premier League and Champions League, playing brilliantly at left-back.
This shows, for Sterling or anyone else, that it all comes down to performance under Pep – regardless of the right face, the wrong face, or if you’re more of a neutral-faced type of emoji.
Ferran Torres’ long stint on the sidelines means Sterling will have the chance to make his case on the grass after a disappointing spell, just as Cancelo has done so eloquently in recent weeks.
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