Pep Guardiola’s title-decider selections are causing the Spaniard headaches.

Manchester City hosts Aston Villa at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. For the home side, it could decide the Premier League title, which would be City’s fourth in the last five seasons.

Despite sitting atop the Premier League after 37 rounds, Guardiola’s usual selection second-guessing reappeared in the last few weeks.

Manchester City’s elimination from the FA Cup in a semifinal loss to Liverpool with a heavily rotated squad began the clamoring among some City supporters. This chattering intensified after Guardiola went defensive in the late stages of the UEFA Champions League Semifinal. A second-leg collapse against Real Madrid extended City’s wait for European glory.

This Sunday, Manchester City face a do-or-die test at home against Aston Villa. City must win to secure the Premier League title. If Liverpool drop points hosting Wolves, then a win is not necessary. However, the City camp likely treats this fixture as a must-win scenario.

That sentiment arose following a 2-2 draw against West Ham on matchday 37. That game, the Sky Blues trailed 2-0 at halftime, scrapping out a point.

Entering the final matchday, Manchester City desperately clings to a tenuous lead atop the Premier League. Guardiola opted to not make any changes during the second half of the comeback against West Ham United on Sunday. Rather, he stuck with an XI for 90 minutes that did not include Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden or lkay Gündoğan.

Guardiola is a manager whose pedigree and record are unassailable. Even then, he battles two persistent critiques in his style.

  • He overthinks tactics in big matches.
  • He is reluctant to make changes in-match when his side is up against it. Instead, he tinkers around with the side on the pitch.
Pep’s Tactical Tinkering

The first critique, which is the most persistent among non-Manchester City supporters, did not rear its head as much this season. That is, at least, up until this point in the season.

Could this trend, which took the media by storm following the Champions League Final loss in 2021, happen again on Sunday? Despite the similarity in the scenario, there is not a chance this habit comes up.

This season, Guardiola’s tactics are much more conventional, particularly regarding squad decisions. Part of that owes itself to the lack of a pure No. 9. Plus, the superior play of Rodri as a holding/box-to-box midfielder made decisions easier. As a result, City’s setup developed into something more rigid. Pep’s tactics allow the club to continue fighting for trophies at the highest level despite having less depth than in the past.

Pep’s aversion to substitutions

The second critique showed up again in the second half of Sunday’s 2-2 draw versus West Ham United. Why exactly did Guardiola opt to not use a single substitution? Why is it that, time and time again, Guardiola takes substitutions home with him in matches crying out for a change?

To Guardiola, passages of play and how shape and spacing look on the pitch are the key to everything. Repeatedly, while chasing matches from behind or trying to hold leads, Guardiola kept the same shape with the same players. He did not want to lose any of the edge Manchester City has or builds in a certain game. Guardiola’s tinkering to protect a lead at the Bernabeu two weeks ago led to disaster.

Contrarily, his unwillingness to change the side trailing 2-0 at the half against West Ham almost paid off. A saved penalty off the boot of Riyad Mahrez almost got City an enormous three points.

Pep Guardiola’s title-decider selections

Foden or Jesus?

Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and lkay Gündoğan did not play against the Hammers. Does that mean they are likely to miss out Sunday?

No, it does not.

However, in all likelihood, only Foden will start. He replaces Gabriel Jesus in the starting XI as the false 9. Foden’s movement and ability to drift to the left is useful. Yet, dropping Jesus, who is on outstanding form as of late, would be a tough call.

Grealish or Sterling?

One recent development for City is Jack Grealish. The club’s most expensive signing in history is starting to show some of the promise City expected upon paying $130 million. Consequently, Raheem Sterling is no longer a lock in the starting XI on Pep’s left side.

Grealish’s play not only improved of late. The entire side seems more comfortable playing through him coming off the left.

Against his former side, Grealish likely matches up with Matty Cash, a player whose surging runs forward require close marking. Can Jack Grealish maintain his defensive liabilities against an offensive wing back? Sterling certainly would. His defensive prowess does not receive nearly enough credit.

Sterling’s experience in major games like this could serve well for Manchester City. However, the choice is likely Grealish, especially based off of recent form. Of course, Sterling is also a likeable selection given everything outlined above.

What about Gündoğan?

As for the midfield, Rodri has been outstanding all season. On the other hand, Ilkay Gündoğan is probably the better attacking option.

Various problems among City’s backline dictate that Rodri plays in his usual role. Plus, Bernardo Silva, who is underrated at tracking back and winning the ball, retains his spot. Should City need a goal late, expect Gündoğan to come on. Rodri likely slots back into that central defense in that hypothetical scenario.

In terms of Rodri’s play, he’s proven to be a unique player in the Premier League this season. His passing ability rivals that of Declan Rice or Jorginho. Combine this with an uncanny ability to win back the ball and recycle the possession. Rodri is a special character for Pep Guardiola’s needs.

Fernandinho to start or sit?

As a midfielder, club captain Fernandinho may seem slightly out of place filling in for the injured Rúben Dias in central defense. Personal preference says that Fernandinho deserved his final game after nine seasons at the Etihad to be something of a sendoff. Unfortunately, circumstances dictate he starts out of position.

Nathan Aké’s uptick in form this season is noticeable. The Dutchman could fill in as a left back or left cente-back. Pep Guardiola’s title-decider selection is likely Fernandinho. This is despite the clear warning signs picked up on during the West Ham game. Jared Bowen and West Ham continuously got in behind the City back line. Plus, distribution out of the back from Manchester City was suspect.

Negating runs from Ollie Watkins as well as the potential threat of Danny Ings (should he start) will be a handful for City. These sorts of matches against pacey sides were struggles for Manchester City before the signing of Dias. With the Portuguese out, this problematic issue returns.

Kyle Walker’s injury proved to be less of a concern than originally thought. João Cancelo’s move to Walker’s normal right back position coincided with  Ukrainian international Oleksandr Zinchenko playing his best football in three seasons. Zinchenko’s play as a left back, oftentimes inadequate in the past, stood out in the last three league matches.

Does City get the job done?

Aston Villa has been underwhelming of late. Ultimately, Manchester City probably win. However, it is indisputably a tense day, particularly given a focus on Pep Guardiola’s title-decider selections.

City faces a tougher test than Liverpool on Sunday. The Reds catch an injury-plagued Wolves side on at Anfield. If City drop points, Liverpool will win the title.

PHOTO: Rob Newell – CameraSport via Getty Images