The return of UEFA club competitions this week offered a reminder that there remain significant hoops to jump through before the delayed European Championship kicks off.

Fixtures being switched to alternative venues due to local coronavirus regulations cast the multiple host city model for Euro 2020 in an unhelpful light, with March's international break set to throw up fresh challenges.

Postponing and rearranging a major sporting event due to ongoing and unspeakably tragic global circumstances makes any focus on the footballing concerns within the equation feel somewhat crass.

But all 24 men leading countries into the finals will look at their squads before kick-off and ponder whether the additional 12 months of waiting and haphazard preparation have been a help or a hindrance in terms of form and personnel.

For England manager Gareth Southgate, the delay looks to have been advantageous.

It is highly unlikely the now resurgent John Stones and Luke Shaw would have featured in his defensive plans, much less centre-forward Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who is now the obvious back-up to captain Harry Kane.

Aston Villa's sparkling creative inspiration Jack Grealish now has England caps to his name, while a crop of richly gifted youngsters are flourishing.

None more so than Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden, who will go head to head when Premier League leaders Manchester City travel to Arsenal on Sunday.

Learning on the job

When Southgate comes to whittle down his final 23, versatility will count as a plus point for those hopeful of making the cut.

Foden and Saka have it in abundance, even if they have edged towards a degree of specialism during stunning runs of individual form during English football's winter months.

A central midfielder on his way through the youth ranks at boyhood club City, Foden's deployment on the left-wing has more or less coincided with the record-breaking 17-match winning run across all competitions that left Pep Guardiola's side 10 points clear at the start of the weekend

Not that it stopped Guardiola starting the 20-year-old as a false nine away to Liverpool, before switching Foden to the right flank for the second half, from where he provided an assist and a goal to inspire a statement 4-1 win.

Then, with Ilkay Gundogan injured, he was back in midfield to open the scoring during Wednesday's 3-1 win over Everton.

"He can play in both positions, he is so young," Guardiola said ahead of the Arsenal game.

"Phil just needs - and for the age [he is], he will get it –  the timing to play inside.

"When you play as a winger you have to play in one tempo, with one timing and one rhythm. When you play in the middle you have to play with another one.

"When he gets this balance, he will be 10 times the extraordinary player that he is right now. It's just a question of time."

Foden has four goals and two assists since the turn of the year in the Premier League, the same figures that can be attributed to Saka since Mikel Arteta selected him on the right wing for the Boxing Day clash against Chelsea.

Saka has featured at left-back, in both wing-back roles and centrally during Arteta's tenure, but he got on the scoresheet in a dominant 3-1 derby victory and has not looked back.

"I see Bukayo evolving, getting better and getting to understand different positions and finally we will fit him in one that gives the best [result]," Arteta said back in July. It appears he has his answer.

Variety is the spice of life

Splitting Saka's 21 Premier League appearances this season into centre, right or left positionally, Opta data shows he creates 1.1 chances per 90 minutes when on the right.

Both of his top-flight assists this term have come when starting on that flank, while an expected assists (xA) scored of 0.23 per 90 indicates a better quality of pass into danger areas when set against stints on the left or through the middle.

The 19-year-old, whose four England caps have come at left wing-back, is similarly effective dribbling on either flank, with 1.4 (left) and 1.5 (right) completed per match.

That figure rises to 3.1 when Saka has played through the middle this season, although two appearances and a solitary – albeit goalscoring – start in a central three versus Sheffield United skew his numbers to a degree.

Guardiola's words this week suggest Foden will find himself back on the flanks at Emirates Stadium, but the City star's feel for a goal comes to the fore when he plays through the middle.

In six Premier League games where he has operated centrally, his goals per game rate of 0.81 per 90 minutes and 2.4 dribbles completed per game are his highest across the three categories.

A shot conversion of 30 per cent also dwarfs his efforts from the left (11 per cent) but 2.5 chances created from open play per 90 in the latter role is perhaps the most significant statistic when it comes to explaining why he has made Leroy Sane's old position his own.

Among Europe's best

Saka and Foden each stack up very well when compared to the leading players under 21 throughout Europe. Indeed, no player within their age range has played more than Saka's 2,317 minutes in all competitions across clubs in the big five leagues.

Foden (2,130) comes in sixth in that regard, while his 11 goals are third behind Moise Kean (16) and Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland (25). Saka's six goals overall place him seventh.

Jadon Sancho (11) is the only under-21 player with more assists than Foden (six), while the City player's 44 chances created from open play comes in second to the Dortmund winger – another handy illustration of the ample resources at Southgate's disposal.

How he should deploy them will be relentlessly discussed before June, even if those arguments are now the preserve of Zoom calls rather than crowded pubs.

What increasingly appears beyond debate is that Foden and Saka have established ironclad cases for inclusion, having at best been outside punts a year ago.

Along with their dazzling array of skills, the versatility Guardiola and Arteta have used to their benefit could prove invaluable to Southgate amid the cut and thrust of tournament football.

Manchester City moved 10 points clear at the top of the Premier League after a 3-1 victory over Everton at Goodison Park on Wednesday. 

With in-form goalscorer Ilkay Gundogan missing through injury, it was fellow midfielders Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva who stretched City's winning run to 17 games in all competitions. 

Mahrez struck a sublime second for City in the second half, his fourth league goal on this ground, after a fortuitous Richarlison effort had cancelled out Foden's deflected opener. 

Silva's third 13 minutes from time – shortly before Kevin De Bruyne made a return from injury off the bench – ensured Carlo Ancelotti's side have only won twice in eight league games in 2021, and their season is in danger of unravelling. 

City controlled the first half-hour but Everton limited them to few chances, with Michael Keane covering well to deny Gabriel Jesus the clearest opening. 

The Toffees went behind in unfortunate fashion 32 minutes in, Foden's right-foot shot flying past Jordan Pickford via a big deflection off Seamus Coleman.

The lead last only six minutes, though. Coleman's cross from the right was smashed goalwards by Lucas Digne – Everton's first shot of the match – and the ball came back off the post and bounced in off Richarlison's knee. 

The second half followed a similar pattern, Jesus and Rodri each missing the target from presentable chances, although Gylfi Sigurdsson led two promising breaks for Everton that should perhaps have yielded more. 

City's pressure told 63 minutes in, Mahrez cutting in from the right and curling a superb strike in off the left-hand post after Silva had created some space. 

Silva capped a fine performance with the decisive third, collecting Jesus' lay-off, working space on the edge of the box and firing in a shot that Pickford could only parry into the net.


What does it mean? Record-breaking City continue title charge 

City's lead at the top over Manchester United now stands at 10 points after 24 games and, on current form, it is a gap that looks unlikely to be bridged. 

This was their sixth league win in a row over Everton and made it 10 consecutive top-flight victories to start the calendar year, surpassing the record of nine first set by Bolton Wanderers in 1906 and then United in 2009. 

Everton, who have lost three league games at home in a row for the first time in five years, stay seventh. 

Silva service 

Everton were just beginning to look comfortable in defence when Silva produced the telling impact, pulling apart the backline to set up Mahrez and then rifling home a goal of his own. 

The Portugal midfielder misplaced just two of his 62 passes, 43 of which were in the Everton half. 

Mina injury adds to mounting Everton worries 

Yerry Mina went off injured in the first half to leave Everton's task even more daunting, as well as give Ancelotti a selection headache ahead of the weekend trip to Liverpool. 

The Italian last lost three league games at home in a row back when he was in charge of Milan in 2006 and, with Southampton and Chelsea to play after the champions, this could be a tough few weeks for him. 

What's next? 

City head to Arsenal on Sunday, with Everton next up at the home of the champions for Saturday's Merseyside derby. 

Wayne Rooney believes Phil Foden and Jack Grealish are too good to be left out of the England starting XI for Euro 2020.

Manchester City youngster Foden starred with a goal and an assist in the 4-1 away win at Premier League champions Liverpool last week.

He is gaining momentum after being handed more opportunities by manager Pep Guardiola.

Grealish, meanwhile, has thrived for Aston Villa this season, establishing himself as one of the Premier League's leading players with six top-flight goals and 10 assists.

Rooney is England's record goalscorer and thinks the form of the two attacking midfielders has become impossible to ignore ahead of the tournament.

"They have to be in the squad and arguably have to play because they are that good," the Derby County boss said about Foden and Grealish.

"Phil Foden has been one of the best players in the league this season, I think Guardiola has managed him really well.

"For Phil, it's about keeping doing what he's doing. He's one of the best players in the league this season.

"Foden is performing excellently — scoring, assisting — and hopefully he can carry that form on with England. He is entertaining to watch. 

"When my lad [Kai] used to go into City, I used to see Phil there.

"I spoke to him a couple of times and I could see he's a very level-headed lad. He was there a lot of the time, but it was just general chat, not me giving him advice.

"There are a few players — not just him. I think Jack Grealish brings something different for the national team."

Foden made his England debut away to Iceland in September but was promptly removed from the squad along with Mason Greenwood for breaking coronavirus protocols.

He responded by scoring a double - his first international goals - in the home match against Iceland in November.

Grealish, meanwhile, has five England caps and manager Gareth Southgate has spoken about the dilemma he faces over whether to play him or Chelsea's Mason Mount.

Phil Foden must be "calm" and "humble" as the plaudits flow his way, according to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

Foden completed the scoring in Sunday's 4-1 win over Premier League champions Liverpool at Anfield, having also had a hand in each of Ilkay Gundogan's two second-half goals.

The 20-year-old attacking midfielder has 10 goals for City in all competitions this season and has played an integral part in them establishing a five-point lead at the top of the table.

However, Guardiola was critical of Foden's performance in the false nine role before half-time on Merseyside and, speaking ahead of Wednesday's FA Cup trip to Swansea City, said he felt Raheem Sterling was City's standout weekend performer.

"I said to [Foden], 'Don't read much, don't listen much, keep your feet on the grass and keep going'," Guardiola said, before waxing lyrical about Sterling after the England star won a penalty and scored a close-range header against his former club.

"Nobody talks much about Raheem and, at Anfield, Raheem made his best game of the last two months. By far.

"He was key in the first goal, for the penalty in the first half. Every action he made was decisive in the final third.

"Of course Phil was so important in the goals, especially in the fantastic last one.

"But Raheem was fundamental for us and hopefully, because he was a little bit not in the best form in the last month, he can continue to maintain the level he played at Anfield."

Foden will be reunited with Steve Cooper on Wednesday when Guardiola's City chase an English record - a 15th consecutive win for a top flight team.

The Swansea boss coached England to success in the 2017 U-17 World Cup, where the young Mancunian was named player of the tournament.

From that point, Guardiola has faced repeated calls to grant the playmaker more minutes at City.

A strand of post-match analysis at the weekend argued the former Barcelona boss had nurtured his latest star perfectly, but Guardiola does not necessarily view it that way and also stated Foden should not consider himself an automatic selection.

"I didn’t plan to handle the way we did it with Phil," Guardiola said. "Sometimes he played and he didn’t deserve to play.

"Normally we want to increase and talk a lot, a lot, a lot about Phil but after that we'll punish him, you know? For one mistake in this private life, we know exactly what happened [Foden was sent home from England duty last September for breaking coronavirus protocols].

"Now it's just [about being] calm. I know Phil is ready to play, His physical condition is extraordinary.

"I will handle it the same way and have handled it. When I believe he can help us he is going to play; when I believe another one deserves to play he is not going to play."

Indeed, with Foden the toast of the present moment in English football, Guardiola challenged him to turn a rich vein of form into the sort of longevity that separates the best from the rest.

"He has to be calm and understand tough periods will come. It depends on him being humble and his love for the game," Guardiola added of a player who recently brought up 100 senior appearances for City.

"We’ll see if he can handle it. Now the people expect him every game to do exceptional things, this is the most important thing.

"It's difficult to play 100 games but the important thing is to do 100 more and 100 more at this level. This is the toughest.

"This is why the best players did not do one action at Anfield; they play five years in a row, being consistent, not injured. Playing, playing, playing.

"This is the next target for Phil, maintain there as high as possible, as much and as long as possible.

"It depends absolutely on him. Hopefully he can do it."

Pep Guardiola hopes Phil Foden understands there is plenty of room for improvement but said it is a joy to have the boyhood Manchester City fan starring for his team.  

Foden scored a stunner and set up another goal as Premier League leaders City romped to a 4-1 victory over reigning champions Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday. 

Playing in a central role up front, Foden struggled to get into the game in the first half but thrived in the second after Guardiola had altered City's shape. 

His exquisite strike rounded off a remarkable 10-minute spell late in the second half in which the match went from 1-1 to 4-1. 

Two blunders from Alisson had gifted City their second and third goals – Ilkay Gundogan tucking in from Foden's cut back before Raheem Sterling headed home his 100th goal under Guardiola from Bernardo Silva's deft lob. 

Foden lashed in a fourth from a tight angle to wrap things up and condemn Liverpool to a third straight Anfield defeat for the first time since 1963.

Asked about the Englishman's performance, Guardiola told Sky Sports: "He's a guy who keeps the ball really well, he's really aggressive.

"But still he is so young, he doesn't understand in some positions what he has to do, so in the first half he was not in the right positions.

"We worked but he is a little bit distracted sometimes in these positions. Playing wide is more easy for him but he will learn.

"After that, the assist for the second goal and then scoring the fourth goal, we know what a huge talent he is, but he's still young and we are still hopeful that he can understand that he can improve, because in the first half he was not in the position that we needed and that's why we suffered in some moments to get the control."

Guardiola had never before tasted victory at Anfield, City's previous five visits during his tenure having returned four defeats and just one draw.

And, while the Spaniard acknowledged the difference a lack of supporters makes, he was still impressed by his players' ability to overcome in-game setbacks.

He added: "What's important is the three points. Of course I'm so proud of the guys. Anfield with people and without is completely different. It's good, especially when we miss the penalty, concede the goal.

"We react with huge personality. Raheem Sterling, phenomenal. The commitment from everyone. Three points, grateful, happy, but tomorrow feet on the grass and thinking Swansea.

"We are not one player. Gundogan started to be one of the top scorers, we have to do it as a team. We have an incredible captain. In this period, to do wins in a row is so difficult."

Thanks to their win, City sit 10 points clear of champions Liverpool and five  ahead of second-placed neighbours Manchester United at the summit of the Premier League – and with a game in hand on both. 

But Guardiola is not getting carried away as he looks ahead to a testing February fixture schedule. 

He continued: "I said before, I'm not a guy who predicts the future. In February, five points is nothing. Swansea, Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal, many tough games. Be calm and keep going. 

"In England you think February will be softer but the schedule is even tougher. One game at a time. The next one is Swansea."

Phil Foden hailed Manchester City's "courage" after they inflicted a 4-1 defeat on champions Liverpool to take a significant step towards regaining the Premier League title.

Foden played a starring role as City extended their winning run to 14 matches in all competitions – a joint-record for top-flight clubs in England.

City had to stay patient after Ilkay Gundogan missed a first-half penalty, but their opener arrived when Alisson pushed Foden's shot to the feet of the Germany midfielder.

Mohamed Salah equalised from the penalty spot, Liverpool's first home league goal in 410 minutes, before glaring Alisson errors took the game away from Jurgen Klopp's side again.

Foden superbly set up Gundogan when Alisson gifted him the ball, then the goalkeeper played another slack pass to allow Bernardo Silva to find Raheem Sterling.

England international Foden had the final say with a fierce strike that made him the youngest player to score and assist against Liverpool at Anfield in a Premier League game.

Victory moved City five points clear of second-placed Manchester United and 10 ahead of Liverpool with a game in hand over both, but Foden urged calm.

"It gives us every chance to go on and win it now but the job isn't done," the 20-year-old told Sky Sports. "[There is] a long way to go – just hopefully keep putting points on the table.

"When you beat the champions, everyone's confidence goes sky high. We haven't won here for a bit."

Foden won 10 of his 15 duels, while earning four fouls, and added: "It's brilliant, every player wants to play in a big game like this; we showed our courage from minute one.

"They played a brilliant game, made it so difficult for us, but we showed our courage to play the football, even when we lost it, and in the first half we still carried on playing our game.

"In the end, it paid off. I feel at times we were the slower team to get going. It was definitely better in the second half, so it's something to work on, to start better."

Foden felt Alisson's errors came due to City's pressing, the Brazil number one the first Liverpool goalkeeper to make two mistakes leading to goals since Loris Karius in the 2017-18 Champions League final.

Alisson made only a single save, the Foden shot from which Gundogan pounced on the rebound.

"We forced the errors," Foden said. "It's something we've worked on in training, everyone worked for each other today, and you get your rewards for it."

Manchester City took another big step towards the Premier League title as they thrashed Liverpool 4-1 on Sunday, a record-equalling 14th straight victory in all competitions.

Only Preston North End, whose run ended in January 1892, and Arsenal in 1987 have ever achieved such a sequence of wins while in England's top flight.

City can now set a new benchmark against Swansea in the FA Cup on Wednesday.

They have moved five points clear of second-placed Manchester United with a game in hand at the top of the Premier League, while Liverpool are back in fourth, 10 points off the pace.

Defending champions Liverpool were undefeated in 68 consecutive home league matches before hosting Burnley last month but have now lost three in a row at Anfield for the first time since September 1963, also being beaten by Brighton and Hove Albion prior to this fixture.

Chelsea, in March 1956, were the previous reigning champions to endure a three-game losing stretch at home in the top flight.

Liverpool at least ended a 410-minute home league goal drought with Mohamed Salah's penalty, cancelling out Ilkay Gundogan's opener.

The Reds avoided going four league matches at Anfield without scoring for the first time in their history, having drawn a blank in a draw with United prior to this losing run, but it counted for little in the end.

Gundogan preyed on an Alisson error for his second, before the Liverpool goalkeeper again ceded possession for Raheem Sterling to net his 100th goal under Pep Guardiola.

Alisson became the first Liverpool goalkeeper to make two errors leading directly to goals since Loris Karius' desperate showing in the 2017-18 Champions League final.

There was still time, too, for Phil Foden to add a spectacular fourth and cap City's first away win in this fixture since May 2003.

Aged 20 years and 255 days old, Foden, who teed up Gundogan's second, became the youngest player to score and assist in a Premier League game against Liverpool at Anfield.

Ilkay Gundogan scored twice as Manchester City secured a record-equalling 14th successive win in all competitions – and a first for Pep Guardiola at Anfield - with a 4-1 thrashing of struggling Liverpool.  

The Germany midfielder made amends for a first-half penalty miss with a brace after the break as the visitors cut loose to march five points clear at the Premier League summit.  

Alisson's poor clearance led to Gundogan's second of the game and the goalkeeper was also at fault for City's third, as Raheem Sterling headed in his 100th for the club under Guardiola. Phil Foden rubbed salt in the home side's wounds with a superb solo goal to round out the scoring. 

The result leaves Liverpool's title defence in tatters; they have lost three successive league games at home for the first time since 1963 and sit 10 points back having played a game more than the leaders.  

Mohamed Salah did end a home league goal drought spanning 410 minutes when he converted a penalty having been pulled back by Ruben Dias, but Alisson’s errors helped City respond in emphatic fashion.

Liverpool have received a triple fitness boost for their clash with Manchester City as Sadio Mane, Alisson Becker and Fabinho return from injury to start.

Fabinho is back following a three-game absence necessitated by a muscle issue, while Mane returns after a similar problem forced him to miss the Reds' last two fixtures.

Alisson, meanwhile, is back in goal after illness kept him out of the midweek defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion at Anfield.

That trio's availability accounts for three of the hosts' four changes, with 20-year-old midfielder Curtis Jones replacing the experienced James Milner the other.

Manchester City, meanwhile, make two changes to the starting XI that beat Burnley in midweek, with Pep Guardiola opting against naming a recognised striker as Gabriel Jesus drops out for Phil Foden.

At the back, Aymeric Laporte makes way, with Oleksandr Zinchenko his replacement.

 

Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden wants to spend the rest of his career with the club and cannot imagine playing anywhere else.

Boyhood City fan Foden came through the youth ranks and served as a ball boy at the Etihad Stadium before breaking into Pep Guardiola's first team as a 17-year-old.

This season he is enjoying an increasingly prominent role in Guardiola's plans and made his senior international debut with England.

Last month's 5-0 win at West Brom was Foden's 100th appearance for the City first team and, ahead of Sunday's crunch clash with champions Liverpool at Anfield, he told BBC Football Focus he is in it for the long haul.

"I can only see myself playing for Manchester City, considering how much I've supported them from a young age," he said.

"It always helps when you play for a club you support.

"When I was younger, it was a dream to play for the club, so never did I think I would make it to 100 appearances so early.

"I gave the shirt from that [West Brom] game to my family and they got it framed."

Foden was named player of the tournament when England won the Under-17 World Cup in 2017 and since then, both from the City fanbase and those outside the club, there has been a clamour for Guardiola to grant him more playing time.

Only Rodri and Raheem Sterling have made more than Foden's 27 appearances in all competitions this season, while his 1,836 minutes played are the sixth most in the squad.

A chunk of his 20 starts came earlier in the campaign in midweek cup encounters as City moved towards a fourth consecutive EFL Cup final appearance and negotiated a favourable Champions League group they shared with Porto, Marseille and Olympiacos.

However, since making a spot on the left wing his own in mid-December, he has unquestionably become one of Guardiola's go-to men.

In the Premier League, City's win percentage rises from 63.6 to 70 when Foden starts, while they average 18.2 shots across those games - up from 13.6 when he does not feature in the XI.

"I wouldn't say I'm doing anything different this season, just playing more of an attacking role," said Foden, who is joint-second in City's scoring charts in 2020-21 with nine goals.

"In previous years, I've played in the middle. Now I'm out wide and you always get confidence when you score in back-to-back games.

"Sometimes you get lucky when chances fall to you. I just enjoy scoring goals and that's what I wanted to add to my game."

City only won three of their first eight Premier League games this season, culminating in a 2-0 loss at Tottenham in November.

They have only dropped four points since then and boast a nine-match winning run in the top flight.

Guardiola's men are three points better off than Manchester United at the top of the table and seven clear of Liverpool in fourth, with a game in hand on both.

Pep Guardiola does not enjoy press conferences at the best of times.

As he sat down, drew his hands across his face and squeezed together a furrowed brow after Manchester City's 5-2 defeat at home to Leicester City last September, he looked like he'd rather be anywhere else in the world.

"After 2-1 and 3-1 we were not strong enough to be stable and be patient," he said, having watched Riyad Mahrez fire his team into an early lead before they collapsed shambolically and gave away three penalties.

"We started to think we were playing bad when we were not playing bad."

The lack of belief Guardiola eluded to owed much to City playing through a fog of bitter disappointment that still cloaked them following the 3-1 Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon the previous month.

A short turnaround to the new campaign was compromised by coronavirus cases and the overall impression was of something broken within a squad Guardiola was taking charge of for a fifth season – his longest spell at a single club.

At that moment, if you had been told one team would be unbeaten in 20 matches and the other would be seven points off the pace in the title racing heading into this Sunday's showdown between Liverpool and City at Anfield, your first reaction might have been surprise that the team from Manchester were only seven points behind.

THE ENFORCER

Two days after the Leicester debacle, Ruben Dias became City's record signing for £62million.

The void left by long-serving captain Vincent Kompany was considerable during 2019-20, with a long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi's erratic form compounding matters at centre-back.

Wanting Dias to improve things was not too much to ask. However, his impact has been utterly transformative.

An instant mainstay, he has started three more games (26) than any of his team-mates across all competitions. Dias' one substitute outing came with City 1-0 down and facing FA Cup embarrassment at Cheltenham Town last month. They won 3-1.

The Portugal international's 2,298 minutes on the field are 228 – or two and a half games – more than any of his colleagues.

He leads the way in terms of headed clearances (34), while 57 aerials won and 32 interceptions have him second only to Rodri and Joao Cancelo within the City squad.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his time on the field and position, Dias' 2,241 passes – at an accuracy of 93.4 per cent – are the most in the City squad, while his confidence in carrying the ball out from the back to start attacks underlines his suitability to Guardiola's style.

Dias' 470 carries – instances of him moving with the ball five metres or more – are the second best in the division, while he leads the way in the Premier League in terms of carries shifting the ball up field between five and 10 metres (177).

"He’s not just a player who plays good, he's a player who makes the other guys play good too," Guardiola said.

"It’s 90 minutes talking, 90 minutes communicating, 90 minutes saying what they have to do in every single action.

"When that happens, it's difficult for me [to pick anyone else] and [Dias becomes] un-droppable."

This Dias effect is probably easiest to spot in John Stones, who is similarly one of the first names on Guardiola's team sheet this season, having been frequently passed over despite the sorry state of the defence last time around.

In the 11 Premier League matches Stones and Dias have started together in defence, City have won 10, drawn one and conceded just once – an injury-time consolation for Callum Hudson-Odoi during a 3-1 win at Chelsea.

Such dominant form did not simply come packaged up with Dias' transfer fee, though. During England's autumn and early winter months, Guardiola had another problem.

The team that pilfered 102, 95 and 106 goals in the previous three Premier League were struggling to find the net.

THE ARTIST

If getting hammered by Leicester marks the first pivot point in City's season, December's dour 0-0 draw in the Manchester derby at Old Trafford is the second.

"There was no intent there, whether it was on the pitch, or from the managers to win that match," an unimpressed Gary Neville said on Sky Sports afterwards.

"If Jose Mourinho was the manager of either one of those two teams, we'd be killing them now. We'd be saying it's not good enough, it's boring, it's parking the bus."

Along with bringing in Dias, Guardiola tweaked his team structure after the Leicester game. Generally, Rodri would be accompanied by a second holding midfielder and his wingers would be inverted to guard against counter-attacks.

In the nine Premier League matches played after the Leicester game, up to and including the Manchester derby, City won four, drew four and lost one.

Over this period, they had the joint-best defence in the division with five conceded, level with Tottenham despite playing a game more. However, 12 goals scored was joint-ninth in the division alongside Crystal Palace, who managed the haul in eight outings to City's nine.

In terms of minutes per goal, City's 67.5 made them the 11th most prolific team in the top flight, below Newcastle United (65.45).

The creative burden sat largely with Kevin De Bruyne, who claimed five assists during these matches. No other City player supplied more than one.

On the face of it, the following game against West Brom suggested the pattern was set to continue. A 1-1 draw after dominating possession but creating relatively little until a stoppage-time flurry amounted to a dispiriting night's work at a soggy Etihad Stadium.

But Ilkay Gundogan's performance against the Baggies was indicative of the shackles being loosened. The Germany international scored and has not looked back.

From the West Brom match onwards, Gundogan has netted seven goals in 10 appearances – more than any other Premier League player during this time – to swiftly rack up the most prolific season of his professional career.

A look at the playmaker's pitch maps if we split the season in this way shows a deliberate effort from Guardiola to get further up the field a player he credits as having "a special sense of finishing".

Before facing the Baggies, Gundogan made more than 70 per cent of his touches in the middle third of the field, with fewer than 20 per cent in the final third. These figures have now shifted to 50.5 and 41.2 respectively. This has not only yielded an increase in Gundogan's goals return, but his chances created (22) since being granted a more attacking role can only be bettered by De Bruyne (23), although injury means the Belgium star has played three fewer games.

It is to Gundogan's credit that the PFA Players' Player of the Year is not being especially missed right now, while his smooth style wreaking havoc in the small pockets of space that deep-lying defences allow means David Silva's close-season departure is no longer being so keenly felt.

"Ilkay was one of the best players I ever coached. Especially in the 2012 season, he was unbelievable and played pretty much like he is playing now," said former Borussia Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp ahead of this weekend's reunion.

"Then he had, unfortunately, some injuries, really tough injuries, but that's now all sorted. He was always that player.

"When you are smart and experience comes into play as well, then it's another jump in your performance level. I'm not surprised at all."

THE WONDERKID

Actions do not happen independently within Guardiola's playing style of Juego de Posicion, where team structure is paramount.

In other words, Gundogan hasn't just been told to run into the box more often and see what happens. Changes have taken place to shift his position higher up the field.

One of these is a more aggressive approach with wingers.

"I didn't like much the way we were playing. We've come back to where we were in the previous seasons with the wingers wider and higher and come back to our principles," Guardiola explained.

"For many reasons – little rest, a lack of physical condition, the COVID many, many players had – we had to adapt the way we play for the quality of the players we had in that moment in better conditions.

"In the end, I felt wingers wide and high helped us to be more stable and have more control in many aspects."

One of the players to thrive more than most within this set-up is Phil Foden.

Guardiola used the boyhood City fan in a variety of attacking positions before leaving him as a frustrated unused substitute at Old Trafford. Since then, every start Foden has made in City's on-going winning streak of nine Premier League matches has been on the left wing.

It marks a departure from the inverted wingers earlier on in the campaign, with the left-footed Foden generally deployed in parallel to Raheem Sterling on the right, the two England stars serving to stretch the area opponents have to defend and open up space for the likes of Gundogan and Bernardo Silva inside them.

Again, starting after the Leicester game and applying the same pre- and post-derby split as we did to Gundogan, Foden's numbers are on the up.

During City's period of consolidation, he created three chances in eight appearances (two starts) at a shade under one every 90 minutes. Since then he has created 18 at an average of 3.2 per game. With him in the side in the Premier League this term, City's shots per game rise average rises from 13.6 to 18.2

Foden's most important contribution during this period was the only goal in a hard-fought 1-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion. He is another player helping to share the goal burden and make light of Sergio Aguero's on-going absence, with nine in all competitions.

Guardiola feels Foden's energy and dribbling ability, along with this goalscoring knack, gives City a vital attacking edge, even though he still views him as a "number eight" in the long term. For now, his right-back very often fills the latter position.

THE WILDCARD

"He arrived last season, he was confused in the beginning. He expected something we could not offer him," the City boss said of Joao Cancelo last month.

Now it is opponents who find themselves repeatedly baffled by where the Portugal full-back crops up on the field.

Creative use of his wide defenders is nothing new for Guardiola. During his time at Bayern Munich, he shifted the likes of Rafinha, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm inside, with the dual benefit of swarming central areas when in possession and having bodies to thwart the counter if the ball was lost.

Fabian Delph, Kyle Walker and Oleksandr Zinchenko have all operated in a similar fashion at times for Guardiola's City, although always with the primary aim of assisting the holding midfielder. While Cancelo does this to fine effect – another factor in Gundogan being unleashed – he also operates with a broader attacking brief.

Walker and Cancelo's touch maps for this season illustrate how Guardiola has used his senior right-backs differently.

Walker plays a full part in City's build-up from deep but the majority of his touches – 54 per cent – come on the right flank either side of the halfway line. This is the return of a fairly conventional right-back.

Cancelo's numbers are spread around, in part because of the games he has started at left-back. But 187 of his touches (12.5 per cent) have come in attacking central areas between the halfway line and the edge of the opposition penalty area, compared to 97 (7.6 per cent) for Walker.

Despite not always starting at right-back, Cancelo (231) also has slightly more touches than Walker (228) on the right-hand side of the final third, along with 162 in advanced positions down the left flank.

In short, he's everywhere and his value to attack and defence simultaneously is underlined by a high ranking within the City squad across a number of categories.

Cancelo is third among his team-mates in the Premier League this season for passes (1,108) and recoveries (88), joint-second for dribbles attempted (49) and chances created (31), second outright for tackles (32) and leads the way with 24 interceptions.

Some of those close to Guardiola believe the Catalan's innovations with full-backs are his greatest tactical contribution to football. With Cancelo, he is pushing the envelope once more.

THE MENTOR

One of the biggest reasons Guardiola felt comfortable doubling down on his footballing vision during – within the context of his career – a time of crisis can often be found sitting on the other side of a vacant, social-distance enabling dugout seat in animated conversation with the City boss.

Juanma Lillo was appointed as assistant coach at City last June. He and Guardiola go back much further.

When he played for Barcelona, Guardiola was so struck by how impressively Lillo's Real Oviedo played during a 4-2 defeat in September 1996 that he sought him out after the game.

A friendship was formed, and Guardiola closed out his playing days with Dorados de Sinaloa, purely so he could play under Lillo. Alas, there is no Netflix documentary for that period of the Mexican club's history.

Alongside the late Johan Cruyff, Lillo is considered to have had the most significant shaping influence upon Guardiola the coach, which makes his presence as City tried to plot a route away from mid-table earlier this season feel significant.

"It would not have been possible, what we have done so far – which is nothing [in terms of trophies], but being there in the table – without his influence on me," Guardiola said of Lillo last week.

"He knows exactly what I need to hear in the right moment. He sees something that I am not able to see, he has a special sense to read the game that is difficult to find worldwide.

"Especially in the bad moments, he is a guy who makes me feel calm and makes me see the real situation of the team. Juanma's influence during this period has been so, so, so important.

"He's important to me and that is what I need."

Watching the superb wins over Chelsea and at Manchester United in the EFL Cup after the turn of the year was to witness a realisation of the vision Guardiola and Lillo fanatically share.

An array of central midfielders streamed into the space where there was no specialist centre-forward, Cancelo roved with abandon and Dias and Stones launched attacks from in front of their bolted back door. Everything was connected.

In an interview with The Blizzard in 2012, Lillo was asked to qualify his assertion that there is no such thing as attack and defence.

"Of course. How can attack and defence exist if we don't have the ball. How can one exist without the other?" he said.

"You can't take things out of their context because they are no longer the same thing, even if you then plan to piece things back together again.

"You can't take an arm off Rafa Nadal and train it separately. If you did, when you put it back in it may create an imbalance."

Guardiola hasn't taken to hacking limbs off his players as with Lillo's Frankenstein Nadal, but he believes a key to their success lately has been using their legs less.

"The reason why we played not good was because, when we had the ball, we moved too much and ran too much. Football, when you have the ball almost you have to walk and run in the right moment," he explained, in a succinct summary of his and Lillo's philosophy.

"When we don't have the ball, we have to run like the last ball in your life. With the ball now we are more calm, more passes, everyone is more in the position and that's why we are able to play a little bit better."

Through standing still, City have taken a huge leap forward over recent weeks. If they are able to win at Anfield for the first time since 2003 – a game that launches a sequence of Premier League games against Tottenham, Arsenal, West Ham and Manchester United – it will become a little bit harder to see anyone catching them.

Pep Guardiola praised the personality Phil Foden gave to Manchester City as they came from behind to beat Cheltenham Town 3-1 in the FA Cup, but insisted he does not have to fill Kevin De Bruyne's shoes.

Foden was instrumental as City avoided a huge shock in the fourth round on Saturday, which looked on the cards when Alfie May prodded fourth-tier Cheltenham ahead.

But the England international equalised by turning home at the far post nine minutes from time before Gabriel Jesus and Ferran Torres sealed progression to the fifth round.

City could have been out of sight by the time May put Cheltenham in front, with Guardiola's men wasteful in front of goal.

Foden played five key passes, with the fact none resulted in an assist indicative of the poor finishing displayed by City.

With De Bruyne out for up to six weeks with a hamstring injury, Guardiola was asked in his post-match media conference if Foden can help fill the void.

"Phil has to be Phil, Phil does not have to be Kevin De Bruyne," he replied. 

"Phil has to do what he is doing in terms of the bad moments when we were losing, the personality that he gave to the game.

"Phil can play in the middle, can play winger, can play in a false nine position up front. He's playing really well, again in the right moment he scored a goal."

Joao Cancelo played the cross for Foden's equaliser after coming off the bench, while fellow substitute Ilkay Gundogan pulled the ball back for Torres to tap in City's third.

Asked to explain their introductions, Guardiola said: "When you make a change you try to look for something.

"The young two players [Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Tommy Doyle] played really well but the quality of Gundogan and Joao in the final third was so important.

"Gundogan has the sense to score and with Phil and Riyad [Mahrez] in the final third we had the quality for the final pass and dribble and that's why they came in."

Pep Guardiola did not see the point in sugar coating the news that Manchester City will be without Kevin De Bruyne for between four to six weeks with a hamstring injury.

"It is [a huge blow] but we have to move forward," he said after confirming the extent of the setback for the Belgium international.

"He has an important part of the season out and we have to find a solution."

Handily for Guardiola, having the likes of Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden to choose from within his creative department means such solutions are - in theory at least - close at hand.

Here, we will examine how well equipped City are to face a run of fixtures including games against Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Borussia Monchengladbach and possibly Manchester United without their star midfielder.

Kevin the kingpin

Even when acknowledging City's enviable squad depth and Guardiola's career-long emphasis on the importance of the collective, De Bruyne's individual contribution throughout the Catalan's Etihad Stadium tenure is a heavy one.

Across 204 appearances since Guardiola took over at the start of the 2016-17 season, De Bruyne has supplied 88 assists - one every 2.3 matches.

Those come from 592 chances created, an average of one per 26.3 minutes.

David Silva is next with 365 opportunities created, with his 47 assists over the period in question second to Raheem Sterling (54).

Basically, daylight is second to De Bruyne in those and a host of other categories.

He has created 138 "big chances", according to Opta, with Sterling (73) and Silva (47) up next.

De Bruyne's 2,015 passes into the penalty area, including crosses, are more than double the amount attempted by any other player during the Guardiola era.

Keeping standards high

Although City finished a distant second to Liverpool in the Premier League last season and bowed out of the Champions League with a dispiriting quarter-final loss to Lyon, De Bruyne was named both PFA Players' Player of the Year and UEFA Midfielder of the Season.

He equalled the Premier League record of 20 assists in a season in 2019-20 and already has 10 this time around, with that figure rising to 15 in all competitions.

Once again, he leads the way for City in terms of chances created (73), big chances created (21) and passes into the penalty area (209).

Sterling (six assists), Riyad Mahrez (45 chances created and 106 passes into the box), are next best in those categories, again demonstrating the how central De Bruyne is to City as an attacking force.

Had De Bruyne been struck down when Guardiola's men were limping through the early weeks of the season, it might have cut off any title bid in its infancy.

However, the manager now has a number of other midfielders stepping up in impressive fashion.

Bernardo is back

Perhaps the most reassuring development for City this week came in the immediate aftermath of his injury.

The game was all square at 0-0 when he departed, Bernardo Silva dropped back to his team-mate's role on the right of the midfield three and promptly thrashed into the top corner to break the deadlock.

"He's back," Guardiola said defiantly of the Portugal playmaker on Friday.

"He struggled last season - maybe for the lack of minutes I gave him or maybe because he was not like him. Always he has been so important for me, for all of us."

Bernardo being "back" is a message understood loud and clear by regular City observers. It means the player who scooped the club's player of the year award when they won an unprecedented domestic treble in 2018-19; a player who has been difficult to spot for much of the subsequent 18 months.

Arguably the most impressive element of that trophy-laden campaign, when City pipped Liverpool to Premier League glory with 98 points to their rivals' 97, is they were without De Bruyne for large chunks of it.

The former Wolfsburg man twice sustained knee ligament damage before a calf strain kept him out for a key stretch of the run-in.

Bernardo's versatility is what makes him a Guardiola favourite, but playing for much of the season in De Bruyne's midfield berth, he registered 13 goals and as many assists in all competitions - a career best return for the ex-Monaco favourite.

The goal against Aston Villa was the 26-year-old's first in the Premier League this year and another drought would be deeply unhelpful as De Bruyne looks on, even though midfield goals have been flying in from elsewhere.

Gundogan and Foden in the goals

Gundogan rounded off the scoring from the penalty spot in midweek and will probably retain duties from 12 yards with De Bruyne out, having scored four out of five at City.

The Germany international is on a hot streak in front of goal since a torpid 0-0 draw at Manchester United in December persuaded Guardiola to tweak his formation and allow Gundogan more attacking license from central midfield.

Five in his past seven Premier League games is part of an all-competitions tally of seven - already the best single-season return of the 30-year-old's career.

Goalscoring is one area where De Bruyne has been under par this year. Two of his three Premier League goals are penalties, and his solitary strike from open play is the yield from 57 shots with an expected goals (xG) value of 5.1.

Gundogan (four open play Premier League goals, xG 2.7) is out-performing his xG almost as impressively as Foden (four open play Premier League goals, xG 2.5).

The England playmaker is level on eight with Raheem Sterling as City's top scorer in all competitions this season and has excelled in a left-wing role over recent weeks.

Like Bernardo, Foden's preference would probably be to operate in De Bruyne's favourite position but he has repaid both the faith of Guardiola and the clamour from City fans for him to start Premier League games more regularly.

City's overall statistics in the eight top-flight matches where Foden has made the XI this season are similar to the 10 when he did not, with a 62.5 per cent win ratio set against 60 per cent falling slightly in the hometown hero's favour.

However, they are considerably more active in front of goal when Foden starts, averaging 19.3 shots per game as opposed to 13.7.

The man himself has plenty to do with such an upturn if his five shots and six chances created against Villa are anything to go by - his most shot involvements in a single Premier League game.

Replacing De Bruyne's similarly weighty numbers in other areas is a task almost certainly beyond any individual at City but, with Bernardo, Gundogan and Foden among the collective, Guardiola has ample talent to keep his team's title challenge on track.

Pep Guardiola suggested Manchester City got a reality check against Brighton and Hove Albion despite moving third with a fourth consecutive Premier League win.

Phil Foden's goal was enough for a 1-0 victory that took City back to within four points of leaders Manchester United with a game in hand.

It was another win and another clean sheet for City – their eighth shutout, a league high – but Guardiola's men did not quite hit the heights of previous performances.

The manager saw that as a positive, however, believing it was important for his side to come through a tricky test against strugglers Brighton.

"For the next games that we have in January, February, this is the best thing that could happen today," Guardiola told BBC Sport.

"There's some rumours outside the team, in the team after Stamford Bridge, [Manchester] United, and the reality is today, the game that we played today.

"It's nice to play the way we played. For 60, 70 minutes, we were so good.

"The first half was the way we have to play; the second half we struggled more because of the quality of the opponent - not because we were lazy or a lack of concentration, not these kinds of things."

City won despite missing a late penalty through Raheem Sterling, their seventh Premier League spot-kick failure since the start of last season, of which the England forward has accounted for three.

Sterling had replaced Foden, who was enthused by City's performance while acknowledging room for improvement.

"I feel like we're back to our best," Foden said. "We're definitely taking confidence from the last few results.

"Today I still thought we could have done better, but we dug deep to get the win. Overall, I'm really proud of the team and how we kept going to the final whistle. Overall, it's a great result."

It was a seventh win from seven Premier League meetings with Brighton, and City now intend to turn their focus to Crystal Palace next on Sunday.

"We know that we have a game in hand, but we just have to think of the next opponent and not think too far ahead," said Foden, now City's top scorer with eight in all competitions.

"We just want to keep going with this form and push to win the league, hopefully."

Manchester City extended their unbeaten Premier League run after Phil Foden's first-half goal secured a comfortable 1-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion.

Foden found the back of the net a minute before half-time and that proved to be enough for Pep Guardiola's men to make it eight games without defeat – including four straight wins – in the top flight.

England international Foden took his tally for the season to eight goals in all competitions at the Etihad Stadium on Wednesday, making him City's highest-scoring player in 2020-21.

Bernardo Silva hit the crossbar and Gabriel Jesus made his return from COVID-19 as a substitute, but City were unable to add to their tally, with Raheem Sterling missing a stoppage-time penalty.

A lovely exchange between Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan led to the first major opening in the 14th minute, but the Belgium international was kept out by Robert Sanchez inside the six-yard box.

Mahrez was unable to supply the finish at the end of an intricate move around the visitors' box, before De Bruyne was again denied by Sanchez following a counter-attack from Brighton's first corner.

City made the breakthrough on the stroke of half-time, with Foden controlling a pass from De Bruyne exquisitely and guiding a fine finish into the bottom-left corner from the edge of the box.

Guardiola's men remained comfortably on top in the second half and after Mahrez missed a one-on-one, Sanchez denied Gundogan and saw Silva's follow-up – which came after he sent the ball through Ben White's legs – crash back off the bar.

Substitute Sterling blazed his last-gasp penalty over after De Bruyne pounced on a wayward header from Lewis Dunk and was taken down by Sanchez.

But City had done enough to move up to third and four points behind leaders Manchester United with a game in hand.

 

What does it mean? Defence still rules for City

City have done well to put together a strong run despite the absences of Jesus and Sergio Aguero, but their impressive form has been built on their defence.

They have conceded just two goals during their eight-game unbeaten run, while they have let in just seven in their past 14 outings in the top flight – four fewer than any other side since the start of October.

Brighton looked dangerous on the break at times, but Ruben Dias and John Stones secured a clean sheet for Ederson on his return from coronavirus.

Delightful De Bruyne

De Bruyne was at the heart of everything positive for City in the first half. By setting up Foden he has now assisted 14 goals in all competitions this season, a tally no Premier League player can better.

Jesus use raises questions

City finally have a fit striker in Jesus, but for some reason Guardiola decided to play him from the left after sending him on in the 67th minute. It was not until Sterling entered 15 minutes later that the Brazil international got to play through the middle.

What's next?

City host Crystal Palace on Sunday in the second of three straight Premier League home games, while Brighton are in action at Leeds United a day prior.

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