Back at the start of December, Pep Guardiola warned of a Manchester City squad emergency as he looked to navigate eight difficult fixtures in just 32 days.
“We are in an emergency in the squad,” he said ahead of City’s tense win at Aston Villa.
“We have few, few, few people. We never complain when it is not possible for players to play for injuries or red cards, I trust a lot in the squad and other players come in but we are in real trouble for December – the toughest month of the year – because we have few few players.
“We have just 14, 15, players. We are in a difficult position because a lot of players play a lot of minutes.”
So Guardiola was torn between the need to rest players and simply being able to field a team. Seven games later, and the emergency has been forgotten, with six Premier League wins in the bag and a healthy lead established in the table.
His solution – as well as benefitting from players slowly returning from suspension and injury – was to do exactly as he has always done. Keep everyone on their toes.
“Sometimes I’m mad and take decisions people weren’t thinking, and some who people don’t expect to play play, like Cole Palmer against Everton,” he said after the narrow win against Wolves.
“Nobody expected it and he played. Everybody has to be ready and it’s good everyone is back because December is really tough with the amount of games. We need everyone fresh to win, win and win again.”
In total, Guardiola has used 20 players in December, including every member of his senior squad given a start in the last month. Cole Palmer has been used off the bench, while a further six fringe or academy players have made appearances in the matchday squad including the likes of Luke Mbete, Romeo Lavia and Kayky.
Fans are familiar by now with Guardiola’s team sheet rotation, with the manager always multiple steps ahead of everyone else when it comes to picking a starting XI. He’s had to deal with new injuries popping up, as well as some well-publicised ‘behaviour’ issues, but has still managed to keep everyone as fresh as possible for the busiest period of the season.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t made his annual complaints about the fixture schedule, as he reiterated his push to allow five substitutions to be made in a game, and even suggested players go on strike to send a message to the authorities that their welfare is being overlooked.
But six seasons into life in the Premier League, and Guardiola knows the score by now. He knew well in advance that fresh legs would win more games than lovely football would, and it’s clear City have made an effort to reinforce the importance of staying safe over the festive period regarding Covid. As other teams have suffered outbreaks in their squads, postponements and restricted selections due to the rise in cases in the UK, City have so far remained unaffected.
So as Guardiola prepares his side for their final festive fixture – a quick turnaround for the trip to Arsenal – he can be satisfied that maybe he’s finally cracked how to navigate the Premier League schedule in December. He’s made the ‘mad’ decisions he promised, overcome the emergency, and kept injuries and isolations to a minimum.
After the Arsenal trip, City don’t have a midweek fixture for six weeks, giving Guardiola the recovery time he’s longed for between games. Imagine how good City can be when fitness isn’t impacting the team sheet.