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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Left-field thinking: Guardiola sees merits in Mendy-Sterling combination

With the marauding Frenchman fit again and Sterling showing against Arsenal his ability to cut inside and shoot with his right, Manchester City manager could pair the two again down City's left flank against Huddersfield

Raheem Sterling, centre, cuts inside from the left flank against Arsenal, before going on to score Manchester City's opener. Reuters
Raheem Sterling, centre, cuts inside from the left flank against Arsenal, before going on to score Manchester City's opener. Reuters

Raheem Sterling collected the ball on the left, cut infield and shot with his favoured right foot. The ball nestled in the bottom corner of the net. It was a scene from last week, the first goal of Manchester City’s Premier League campaign coming courtesy of Sterling against Arsenal, but it could become an increasingly common scenario in the future.

One of the by-products of Benjamin Mendy’s return to fitness is that Sterling could start on the left more often. When the raiding left-back was injured last season, Pep Guardiola argued he needed Leroy Sane to provide width. Now, with a natural left-footer taking up the position nearer the touchline, he could use an inverted winger. “Mendy and Raheem can play together,” the City manager said.

“We can play Raheem there. Since we were here he played on the right, [but] in Liverpool before, Raheem was playing [on the] left. On the left, he goes more inside to shoot.”

The opener at Emirates Stadium suggested Sterling has the potential to become more prolific. That said, the England international mustered a career-best 23 goals in City’s title-winning campaign. Guardiola would settle for the same again. “I would like [him] to score the goals he scored last season,” he explained. “I will sign [for that] right now.”

One of those 23 was a winner away at Sunday’s opponents Huddersfield Town, a fortunate rebound but a product of Sterling’s ability to get into the penalty area. “Raheem last season, not just in terms of goals, in assists, and creating chances and movements without the ball, was outstanding,” Guardiola said.

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Yet one of the notable scenes in All Or Nothing, the new Amazon Prime documentary of City’s season, relates to a goal he should have scored, an open goal he contrived to miss with a left-footed effort in February’s draw at Burnley. “I changed you because of the mistake,” Guardiola told the substituted forward. “You can’t miss a chance like that. I expect you not to make mistakes. You can’t miss that one.”

A devastated Sterling agreed. It offers an insight into the character of a man who is often misunderstood. The more exuberant Mendy is, Guardiola said, a boon to the dressing room, even if his praise was tempered with a warning that the World Cup winner has to concentrate.

“Benjamin has a big heart,” Guardiola said. “What we want is to have him to be focused in every session, in every game. After that, we need to have in the locker room people like Benjamin. It is important to have guys who make the other guys laugh.”

Another addition to the dressing room is Phil Foden. With Kevin de Bruyne perhaps sidelined for three months by a knee injury, it could afford a chance to the 18-year-old Englishman. Guardiola’s willingness to promote technically gifted young players, regardless of their physique, was apparent when he parachuted Pedro and Sergio Busquets into the Barcelona team. Two decades earlier, Johan Cruyff had selected him, despite his lack of pace.

“Cruyff’s focus was the quality, the quality, the quality,” Guardiola explained. “It didn’t matter the weight and the size. He had a lot of courage to say to say ‘Ok, you play’. Maybe other managers at Barcelona at that time looked for more overall physicality; just strong, technique doesn’t matter.”

Foden has the technique. Guardiola is adamant the physicality will follow, adding: “But Phil is strong. He looks tiny, skinny but he is strong. He is a box-to-box player in terms of he runs a lot. In one or two or three seasons he will be more and more strong than right now. That will not be a problem.”