Pep Guardiola tried his best to avoid naming names.
Manchester City were nearing the end of a pre-season tour in July 2018 flooded with young players that had impressed but would likely not be involved the following season, and the manager realised that promise needed to be met with caution given how predictions can end up looking completely wrong.
There were two players he felt confident enough to name though: Phil Foden and Eric Garcia. Foden had been with the senior squad for a full year by that point but Garcia was a discovery; the signing of one of La Masia’s brightest gems in 2017 was expected to be a coup but the defender had endured some teething problems adapting to English football in the academy.
With most of City’s senior players at the World Cup though, Garcia went on tour and instantly looked at home. Guardiola noted after their first friendly – a 1-0 defeat to Jadon Sancho’s Borussia Dortmund – that he “is 17 or 18 and played like he is 24 or 25” and better still was to follow in the next game.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool turned up to the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey meaning business. City staff were surprised at just how seriously their counterparts were taking the game and the respective line-ups revealed a laughable gulf in class.
The Reds started Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson, Gini Wijnaldum, Fabinho, and James Milner in their XI and brought on Mo Salah and Sadio Mane; the Blues lined up with a defence of Jason Denayer, Garcia, Cameron Humphreys and Luke Bolton and Riyad Mahrez would be the only player that Guardiola picked for both this game and the first Premier League match of the season.
Despite the mismatch, Garcia acquitted himself well (Liverpool came from behind to win 2-1 with a stoppage-time penalty) and solidified his reputation in the final game of the tour where Bayern Munich were bested.
“Eric, for example played three games against Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Arjen Robben, Kingsley Coman – it’s so complicated,” Guardiola said afterwards. “But I’m so satisfied for the intention. We judge intention and intentions were so good.”
Performing against opponents with such experience and quality was enough to convince Guardiola that Garcia would not be fazed by the leap up to senior football in a team that is exceptionally demanding of its centre-backs, and as soon as he was over an injury that sidelined him in the autumn of 2018 he had made his debut in the Carabao Cup quarter-final.
With Fernandinho suspended for the visit of Liverpool and Nicolas Otamendi erring at the weekend against Newcastle, if Garcia is able to overcome the concussion that has kept him out since the Arsenal game he could get another shot at keeping Mane and Salah out on Thursday.