It was a point late in the second half against Young Boys on Wednesday night when things clicked and Manchester City suddenly seemed much more comfortable.
Pep Guardiola had made seven changes to his team, far more than he normally prefers (he has stated recently that two or three are ideal), and with that in mind it is important to say that they played very well overall.
Doku was by no means poor, although Nunes struggled and Guardiola said he was “a bit out of the position he should be”, hinting at the rather common teething problems for new players at City. Mateo Kovacicwho started the season well, didn’t have a particularly bright game either.
City have certain players who, for obvious reasons, are just a bit more confident, ones you would trust a bit more than others at the moment, and perhaps Alvarez is the latest player to join that group.
The next one just might be Rico Lewis. The 18-year-old was certainly one of them on Wednesday night and he was named man of the match in recognition of that fact.
“Today he played more in his usual position,” Guardiola said afterwards, of the hybrid right-back/centre-back role in which he looks good. “In that position he is a master, he is so intelligent.”
Technically, he is incredibly neat, able to organize in midfield with neat passes but also the ability to carry the ball upfield quickly. Locally, as Guardiola says, he knows exactly how to play a rather complex role.
Guardiola has said Lewis’ performances from right-back in midfield have helped City find their form and go on to win the treble.
“It’s thanks to Rico, he helped us understand what we had to do to play better and better,” Guardiola said in May.
“The last 10 games he didn’t play much but without Rico this season the step we took as a team would have been more difficult.
It was at the end John Stones who made the biggest difference when he moved from right-back (and later centre-back) into central midfield, with a partnership Rodri and go even further forward. It helped Guardiola to find the same balance, to create the same overload he had before with the wrong nine.
But he insists Lewis paved the way for it. The only reason he was dropped was because of Stone’s greater experience and Kyle Walker.
At the moment, Lewis will never be at the top of the list of City players who can be relied on at any moment; it seems unlikely that he will start the Manchester derby on Sunday, for example.
Those days are definitely not far away. Not long ago he started against RB Leipzig in a more aggressive central role, which attracted a lot of praise.
“He played well, huh?” said Guardiola. “What a player. What a player. 18 years old. I’ve been a manager for 14-15 years, trained amazing players, and to find a player like him in the pocket, how he has to move as a midfielder, as a full-back to come in, move in the small spaces, the more difficult, he is one of the best I’ve ever coached, by far.”
He did so well that he was selected against Arsenala clear indication of Guardiola’s faith in him, even if the caveat was that Rodri was missing and the Catalans were desperate for plenty of players in midfield, especially those with the ability to move a game forward through good passing and good decisions.
Before the game, Guardiola had been asked about it Phil Foden and ended by explaining the qualities he most admired in Lewis.
“Sometimes there’s a step you have to take as a footballer, to think: ‘OK, if I play in that position, I have some responsibilities that I have to do for the team.’ If they do this I have to do that, if they don’t do this I have to do that.’ Certain players, for example Rico Lewis, have it immediately. When he moves in, I didn’t teach him anything, it comes from his nature.”
He would be a great complement to Foden on the pitch, that’s for sure, and what a turn of events for City to have two lifelong fans who have been with the club since primary school.
Lewis is certainly on the same track as Foden. Indeed, in terms of minutes and first team exposure he is further ahead of his age than the academy’s undisputed poster boy was.
Foden had played 370 Premier League minutes before he turned 19. Lewis has so far played 1049. In Foden’s first two seasons with Guardiola, he played 1433 senior minutes in all competitions. Lewis has 1326 and the remainder of this period remains.
Guardiola was very patient with Foden, to the point where there were regular periods of national clamor for him to get more playing time. As late as February 2020, two seasons after he turned 19, there were calls for Guardiola to finally “trust” Foden, whom he rated incredibly highly but felt the need to protect.
Given Lewis’ first-team appearances already, it’s tempting to think he’ll be a fixture in the City team two years from now.
is of course not there yet. He found it difficult to get into the game at Arsenal, although most of his teammates did too. Speaking after Wednesday’s game, he said he was “frustrated” with himself for the goal, perhaps making the wrong decision to try to play Meschack Elia offside when he might have been able to make the run.
If it’s understandable that Nunes, Kovacic and even Doku need some time, it’s that an 18-year-old won’t be perfect just yet. And when everyone is in good shape, he has to be patient.
But he’s certainly starting to get outings already, and he’s already shown more than enough to suggest he can handle them – even the physical side of being very obviously a target for rough treatment with Liverpool and Leeds in his first game for City last December.
Guardiola clearly loves him.
“The most important thing for a footballer is to earn the respect of his teammates,” he said after the Leipzig match. “When they can rely on you on the field and you know what you have to do, you’re in heaven.
“The players are not stupid, they smell everything on the pitch, they know who they can rely on on the pitch and they can rely on him.
Not bad for 18.
(Photo: Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Getty Images)
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