Partway through the second half of Manchester City’s win over Newcastle United, Pep Guardiola’s head popped up over the parapet of the Etihad’s home dugout and looked back into the Colin Bell Stand.
His eyes were wide, there was a smirk on his face, and as he mouthed something into the mass of people behind him, a lot of their heads also began to turn around in the direction of one supporter in particular.
Guardiola had been taking some stick from this fan sitting over his left shoulder, several rows behind him. It was time to give some back. “He said to me: ‘Make a substitution!’” Guardiola later revealed. “So I said: ‘Come, sit here and do it!’”
Unsurprisingly, the supporter in question did not take him up on the offer. More surprisingly, perhaps, and despite City’s players noticeably flagging towards the end of an otherwise very impressive display, neither did Guardiola cave in to the supporter’s demands.
For the sixth time during his Premier League career, he ended a game with the same line-up that had started it. Since Guardiola’s arrival in English football, only Sean Dyche has decided against making a substitution more often.
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And although this was the first time Guardiola had stuck to Plan A in the Premier League in more than a year, it is nothing out of the ordinary. City made no changes in Champions League knockout away legs at RB Leipzig and Real Madrid last season either.
The truth is that because of injury, illness and confirmed or impending departures, City do not have much of a bench to speak of at the moment.
The nine substitutes who sat in the dugout on Saturday night and listened to their manager take on that heckler had a total of 216 appearances for City between them — a decent amount, though a lot of those are Nathan Ake’s and only a small proportion of the others came as starts.
Experience is in short supply. Six of City’s subs were under the age of 22. All six are still waiting to make their international debut. Oscar Bobb — the star of City’s Premier League 2 title-winning squad and expected to be around the first team this season — is still waiting for his first senior club appearance.
This runs contrary to a common misconception heard from commentators, pundits and fans of City’s rivals who say the reigning English and European champions’ strength in depth is unmatchable.
It might stand to reason that a club with City’s resources should have plenty in reserve, but that has not exactly been the case at the Etihad for a few years now.
City’s depth is more about quality than quantity — the 24 players City used in last season’s Premier League campaign was the fewest of any top-flight side — and that is by design. Guardiola likes to work with a small group for purposes of squad harmony. “I don’t like to have players at home on the weekends,” he said in the build-up to Newcastle’s visit. “That isn’t sustainable.”
Twenty-four is somewhere around what Guardiola called “the perfect number” — tight enough to keep most happy with their playing time, while still large enough to rotate fully in the early rounds of domestic cup competitions and have options off the bench.
Guardiola will make changes if necessary and considered them against Newcastle, namechecking Rico Lewis, Cole Palmer and even the lesser-spotted Kalvin Phillips as players he thought about introducing. But ultimately, he decided against it.
“The team in that moment were alive,” he reasoned in his post-match press conference. “In that game, to come in, sometimes the rhythm is difficult. I know they were tired but they were still there and fighting every ball.”
Whereas his heckler saw a side exhausted by their midweek excursion to win the Super Cup and wanted to change the game, Guardiola saw a game that did not need changing.
And when you are as dominant as City usually are, it rarely does. Of the nine Premier League managers to take charge of 38 games last season, Guardiola’s total of 123 substitutions was the lowest. Graham Potter made more in 10 fewer games.
The last time a substitute scored a winning goal for City in the league was Riyad Mahrez at Stamford Bridge in January. Before that, it was Erling Haaland off the bench to score a late winning penalty against Fulham in November.
You might remember that victory at Chelsea as the night Guardiola included a lot of names supporters had been calling for in his starting line-up, only to roll back on it all at half-time. As for the Fulham game, Haaland would have started had he not been carrying a foot injury over the preceding weeks.
In both of those instances then, the difference was made by a substitute who would have typically been in Guardiola’s full-strength XI anyway. Yes, City might not have much of a bench right now, but some notable exceptions aside — such as on that final day of the 2021-22 campaign — it is rare for Guardiola to genuinely need one.
We could be approaching that point, though. “Maybe we’re a little bit short,” Guardiola conceded when discussing City’s summer transfer business so far on Friday.
“I had the feeling right now we are falling down – a lot of injuries, small injuries,” he said, blaming the schedule for recent setbacks that have sidelined Kevin De Bruyne and John Stones. Bernardo Silva is also missing through illness.
After fighting and winning on three fronts, losing a couple of key players unexpectedly and then returning to action with less rest and preparation time than most of their rivals, Guardiola’s preference for a tight, lean squad is being tested.
Take Rodri, for example, who played 4,465 minutes last season — nearly 200 minutes more than even Ederson — and admitted this summer that he has expressed concerns to the club about just how much football he is playing.
His workload would be eased if Phillips was the genuine backup option he was signed to be, but the £42million ($53.5m) signing is yet to gain Guardiola’s trust. There are few workable alternatives. One of them is Maximo Perrone, yet the 20-year-old midfielder is nearing a loan move to Las Palmas, further depleting the pool of first-team players.
Reinforcements are expected. Either a winger or a midfielder — the former potentially Jeremy Doku, the latter now unlikely to be Lucas Paqueta — should arrive before the end of the month. But even if there is more business to come, not every player to have left or be on their way out the door will be directly replaced by the close of the window.
That might not be an issue. The champions have coped perfectly well with small squads and weak benches in the past. Their manager, the great problem solver, invariably finds a way through. But even so, City look set to be a little lighter than usual this season. A few more substitutions and a bit more rest in the legs would not go amiss.
The next time Guardiola hears a call from the Colin Bell Stand to make a change, it could be worth at least a moment’s consideration.
(Top photo: Tom Flathers/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)