Are Manchester City the ‘best team in the world’ right now? Carlo Ancelotti seems to think so.
The Everton manager on Saturday saw his side crash out of the FA Cup with a 2-0 defeat, while Man City cruised to the semifinals thanks to a goal each from Ilkay Gundogan and Keven De Bruyne.
City’s quadruple dreams are now stronger than ever — they’re in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, the semifinals of the FA Cup and the finals of the English League Cup; they’re also top of the table in the English Premier League with a 14-point lead. Like a well-oiled machine, City managed to win 21 games in a row before being defeated by derby rivals Manchester United.
In a league as fiercely competitive, demanding and physical as the English Premier League, the power of a solid bench cannot be underestimated.
Injuries amongst the starting squad have been known to wipe out teams who seemed to have it all. Reigning champs Liverpool became a cautionary tale this season, going from top of the world (and league) last season to struggling to stay afoot without key players. Losing Virgil Van Dijk was the beginning of the end.
Meanwhile, Pep Guardiola is known for rotating out his starting lineup (a pain for any Fantasy Premier League enthusiast) without fear. His benched players aren’t simply back-up plans – they’re an extension and continuation of whoever's on the pitch.
("Everybody wants to be involved from the beginning. Now, it’s perfect because we rotate six, seven players and everyone's fit. It’s working well," he said last week. “To win the title, especially the Premier League and the other titles, we need everyone, for the best for the club and the best for the team.")
Just look at Ilkay Gundogan. Dealing with his own share of injuries, no one had paid him any mind before. Not last season, when he scored two goals in 31 league games. Or the season before that, when he scored six. Before that: four. Before that: three.
This season alone, Gundogan has scored 12 goals in 23 league appearances.
Gundogan arrived at Manchester City all the way back in 2016 after five years Borussia Dortmund, during which time he had scored a total of 10 goals in the Bundesliga. That’s an average of two goals a year for half a decade.
Described as City’s secret weapon, he stepped up to the plate and took on heavier attacking responsibilities after Kevin De Bruyne was ruled out with a serious injury.
“I think it’s just something that comes automatically, especially when you are missing these kinds of players who are obviously game-changers,” Gundogan said, when quizzed about adapting to the new expectations.
Gundogan isn’t alone. Goal-scoring centre-backs Ruben Dias and John Stones have been compared to some of the greatest defender duos football has ever seen. At 20 years old, Phil Foden is only going to get more dangerous.
Even with attacking players like Sergio Aguero and KDB out of commission, Guardiola’s City were able to not only survive – but thrive.
Asked about how he felt with Saturday’s loss at the hands of City, Ancelotti seemed to take it on the chin.
“I am satisfied because we were beaten by the best team in the world,” he said.
“They have the best bench in the world. It was a good experience for us and there are no regrets.”
Guardiola is likely to agree. When his team was on a 20+ game winning streak, he expressed his cut-throat mentality. He didn’t want any of his players to become complacent or they would be axed from the team. After all, there would always be someone to replace them. To him, it’s about mental strength over pure strategy.
“We have to adapt - every game is different. Leicester may be similar and play four in the middle. Dortmund and Leeds will be different. Managers know what they have to do.
“But when you win a lot of games like we have in the last four months, it’s because you can adapt. That pleases me the most.
"It’s not just tactics, it’s mental - being ready every game.
“What we have done is more than remarkable. It’s incredible.”