Like last weekend, there was another dominant midfield display from Rodri. Like last weekend, another breakthrough was made possible by a divine Joao Cancelo pass. Like last weekend, it was another comfortable, professional Manchester City win worthy of the status of champions. And though he would never admit it publicly, deep down Pep Guardiola may be ever so slightly encouraged that history is starting to repeat itself.
It was this time last season, as the temperature dipped and nights drew in, that Guardiola and his players embarked on what would become a 28-game winning run in all competitions, transforming themselves from Premier League title outsiders to champions-elect. If that is to happen again, though, there will be a difference: much of it will come down to two players whose influence has grown exponentially over the intervening period.
That is certainly true of Rodri. Now in his third season in Manchester, he spent much of the first struggling to step into the most demanding role in Guardiola’s system, unable to muster the special blend of positional discipline, high intensity ball-winning and considered use of possession that an ageing Fernandinho had mastered over the course of three seasons and two title-winning campaigns.
City suffered as a result, becoming too easy to expose on the break and the type of opponents that Sunday’s opponents West Ham would have relished playing against. The approach which David Moyes’ side took at the Etihad this weekend would probably have been successful back then. Instead, they did not manage a shot on Ederson’s goal between the 28th and 77th minutes. The 2-1 scoreline flattered them.
That had a lot to do with how Rodri dictated play in and out of possession. No City player made more tackles or interceptions, or pressures in the middle third of the pitch. Once the ball was at his feet, he refuted his reputation for safe and sideways passing. Only Kyle Walker played more balls into the final third. This is an altogether different Rodri from the player seen during his first season in Manchester.
That is often the case under Guardiola, as Gary Neville pointed out while commentating on the win against Everton last week. These things take time. “This happens quite a lot during Pep Guardiola's time at Manchester City when you see a player come in during that first six months and you think: ‘I'm not quite sure they fit in, I'm not quite sure they are at the level that City have had in the past’. Then they just tend to grow and grow and get better. Rodri is doing that now. There are lots of them.”
Cancelo is another. The Portuguese full-back has been earning plaudits for his performances for some time now but, arriving the same summer as Rodri, his early days at City were even more inauspicious. There were only 13 league starts in that first year and he was run ragged in the first of those, a 2-0 home defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers which set the tone for the limp title defence to come. All that changed last season, when Cancelo’s creative and technical ability from the full-back positions began to shine through and was widely applauded.
Still, towards the end of the campaign, his influence in the opposition’s half tailed off and errors crept in on the defensive side of his game. By the time of the Champions League final, Oleksandr Zinchenko was preferred at left-back. Some put that down as another galaxy brain decision by Guardiola, as egregious as playing with no holding midfielder, but it was completely in line with the respective late-season form of the two players. Fortunately for Cancelo, he has not picked up where he left off.
After the outrageous pass outside of the boot pass to set up Raheem Sterling last weekend, this time there was a 40-yard cross-field ball to put Riyad Mahrez inside the penalty area, in position to set up for Ilkay Gundogan’s opener. It was sublime and yet more evidence that City have solved their long standing left-back problem. Once considered under constant threat of rotation, Cancelo has played more league minutes than any other City player this season, Ederson included.
Again, it seems as though for new signings under Guardiola, these things take time. As Neville pointed out, that was the case for Riyad Mahrez, for Bernardo Silva, for Leroy Sané before them and maybe for Jack Grealish over the next couple of years too. There is only one glaring exception to that rule in the form of the present football writers’ player of the year Ruben Dias, though in a way he could be the exception that proves it.
That Dias adapted to life in Manchester, excelled under Guardiola and helped shore up a imperfect City defence in the space of a single season was deserving of immense credit, though at least partly a consequence of his less specialised role. Centre-halves in a Guardiola system do not have to shoulder many responsibilities that they would not be given under another elite manager elsewhere.
Playing out from the back and defending in a high line are de rigueur nowadays among European football’s elite, thanks in no small part to Guardiola’s sweeping influence. It is different in other positions elsewhere on the pitch, where there is still a greater variation in roles and responsibilities across the modern game and a greater specialism within Guardiola’s own system.
Full-backs, in fairness, are starting to become more homogenised as dynamic and technical attacking players, but Cancelo is nevertheless one of these leading the vanguard of that movement, and still does something in every game that your average full-back would only manage once a season. The holding midfield role in a Guardiola team is, as discussed, practically unique, responsible for so much going both ways and difficult for any player to master.
Is it really any wonder, then, that it took both Rodri and Cancelo time to begin having the influence on games that they have had of late? A little over two years into their City careers, though, they are beginning to decide games for the Premier League champions together while proving that when it comes to new signings playing under Guardiola, patience is a virtue.