Phillips supports Pep’s assertions.
For City, this was Kalvin Phillips’ first Champions League start—he has only made six overall. However, just like his previous two cup games and his two Premier League starts, they have occurred when Rodri’s rest is more crucial than the outcome. Guardiola apologised to Phillips last week for not playing him more, stating that he just couldn’t see the England player in the midfield when he looked at his team. Despite the harsh remarks, Guardiola expressed his happiness at being able to offer Phillips a start in Serbia.
Should Phillips have had the opportunity to refute his manager, Guardiola would have observed, confident that his own standing was reinforced instead of Phillips’. Even though Mateo Kovacic was requested to play deeper in a double pivot to give Phillips more protection, the player remained the same uneasy mess that he always is when he gets the ball. Too often, Phillips gave up the ball because he was too heavy-footed, which frequently resulted in counterattacks and, in one instance, an awkward yellow card. When In-beom Hwang had the opportunity to get one back for the hosts late in the game, he didn’t even bother tracking his man.
Phillips’s subdued reaction after converting his penalty kick for his first goal in blue appeared to indicate his standing in the team. His teammates were happy for him, but all he did was walk off, hardly even cracking a grin, his only acknowledgement being a blow-out kiss to the crowd. Despite the goal and the good play of Matheus Nunes and Kovacic, Phillips doesn’t appear to have gained any ground with his infrequent start. On the one hand, Phillips needs to play regularly for City to establish his worth, but on the other side, it appears like the £42 million midfielder’s time has arrived.
Hamilton does not miss the opportunity.
The real show was taking place in Belgrade on Wednesday night, but tickets for the musical Hamilton, which is presently showing at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, were selling like hotcakes this month. Young striker Micah Hamilton capped his City debut with a spectacular goal, and the travelling City supporters in the Rajko Mitic Stadium were in the room where it happened. In Belgrade, he only needed to take on his defenceless full-back once and shoot into the net to leave an impression.
After rising through the academy ranks, Hamilton was called up to the senior squad. He made his debut in Belgrade alongside former academy teammates Oscar Bobb and Rico Lewis. Hamilton is the newest young player to break into Pep Guardiola’s first team. When Hamilton scored, the two were the first to rush to him, ahead of the more experienced players who were just as happy for the winger.
In the end, Hamilton’s heroic start was rewarded with a crucial penalty. He was unstoppable on the right and left everyone in disbelief as he twisted and swirled like a cyclone in the box. After two bench appearances, the winger had to wait for his chance under Guardiola, but he proved what City was lacking. He proved why academy coaches refer to him as a “street footballer” in Belgrade. More like that, and this won’t be his last appearance as a debutante. At Red Star, he was the main attraction.
A memorable evening for the academy
Five academy graduates made up the starting lineup on the pitch at full time in Belgrade; two of them scored City’s two goals, and the other two were instrumental in the team’s treble season. If City’s youth looks at Foden and Rico Lewis as examples of players who could make it to the first team, then it’s also acknowledged that those two are absurdly gifted players. Oscar Bobb’s season-long partnership with Guardiola is a testament to the academy’s recent accomplishments; the coaches at the CFA have recently made history with Hamilton’s debut.
With his outstanding debut senior (club) goal and Player of the Match honours, Bobb demonstrated his confidence as a player who had successfully transitioned to first team football this season. He now scores goals for both his country and the Champions League, providing City with a real alternative on the right. Hamilton can also, given his strong debut. To have five CFA graduates on the pitch was the cherry on top with Mahamadou Susoho’s late appearance. While City supporters adore seeing their elite, foreign players win titles, they also root for local boys and recent academy graduates to succeed on the team and carve out a niche for themselves.
These dead rubbers are frequently disregarded or forgotten because there is nothing left to play for. It might have an effect that extends well beyond this season for City to have won while placing such a high value on the academy. Their children will understand that there is always that pathway if they do well. The newest players that managers can utilise to inspire the next wave of City first-team players as they continue to carve out their own pathways are Susoho, Hamilton, and Bobb.
Nunes demonstrates his potential.
Guardiola made nine changes to his starting lineup for Red Star, and his three-man midfield of Matheus Nunes, Mateo Kovacic, and Kalvin Phillips all had something to show after struggling to get into the starting lineup in recent weeks. With Nunes leading the way, Kovacic and Phillips formed a double pivot, and in the first few minutes, Nunes made it clear what he wanted. He received an assist from a perfectly timed nudged pass out to Micah Hamilton, and he has set a goal to add more of these.
He was relieved to see the flag go up after he fluffed his lines six yards out, giving away the chance for City’s first goal. All in all, it was an adventurous showing at number ten, lending some poise to a forward line lacking experience (not that Hamilton needed much assistance). However, his performance in Red Star’s system highlighted the difficulty he faces in the City midfield.
Guardiola rarely uses a double pivot, so in games where the outcome is in doubt, Nunes will have to contend with Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden, Julian Alvarez, and Kevin De Bruyne for the tenth spot. Guardiola believes Nunes has a significant role to play, and Kovacic, who has had a quiet debut at the Etihad, believes he can be a major contributor for City. He is obviously a talented player, but when will he again be given a fair opportunity to play at his preferred position?
The left-back problem persists
In just his second start as left back in all competitions since January, Sergio Gomez was chosen, sparing Josko Gvardiol and Nathan Ake. Rico Lewis also starts on the left side ahead of Gomez, and both Ake and Gvardiol have attempted to shut off the left-back position. Similar to Kalvin Phillips, Gomez appears to have a very narrow path to consistent playing time. This season, he has played at left-back more often than right-wing.
Like Phillips, Gomez didn’t exactly perform poorly at Red Star, but it also wasn’t good enough to convince Guardiola to reconsider Gomez’s long-term potential. There aren’t many games with much on the line, or against lesser opposition, where these guys can afford to participate, so it’s a difficult scenario. The larger players will reappear in the more difficult games.
Gomez should have done more to make himself a viable left-back option, but Gvardiol is still developing and not quite ready for that position. Although Ake was unstoppable as City won the triple crown, Guardiola says he can’t play three games a week and hasn’t been trusted as much there. Three left-back alternatives are available to City, but none of them are left-backs. In Gomez’s instance, Red Star took no action to advance him; at best, he is firmly third in that hierarchy.