De Bruyne was right and Southgate wrong — Six things Man City learned from June internationals
Pep Guardiola has been stressing the point for years, and Kevin De Bruyne was blunt when asked about his opinion of UEFA’s decision to hold four Nations League games in June.
Now those four games are over, it’s hard to argue that De Bruyne didn’t have it spot on, with all countries showing tiredness and few showing much progress, even looking ahead to the World Cup. For Guardiola watching on, he will have seen plenty to encourage him from a Manchester City perspective, but equally won’t have seen much to persuade him that a longer break for his players would have been more beneficial.
Still, with 15 senior City players in action, Guardiola can use these four games to help plan his pre-season preparations and try to predict how his players will be used for their countries in September and then the World Cup.
This is what we learned from June’s internationals:
Southgate might be wrong about Grealish
Jack Grealish started the international break talking about he freedom he gets with England, and impressed with two cameos off the bench versus Hungary and Germany. They prompted fans to ask when will he start for England, with Gareth Southgate replying that Grealish must improve tactically before becoming a first-choice starter.
Grealish got his start against Italy, where the whole side looked like they were playing a third needless international after a gruelling season, but arguably displayed some of those tactical elements Southgate was looking for. And his omission in the baffling 4-0 defeat to Hungary will only strengthen his case to start even more, with nobody proving they can do a better job. Going into the World Cup season, Grealish can pair a kick-on at City with a promotion for England.
De Bruyne was right
However good or bad performances were over the last fortnight — especially for England — a basic point remains. The games shouldn’t have been played in the first place.
Since June 2020, these top players will have had just two to three months off, playing 119 games for City in two years, plus up to 33 internationals. Haaland was fully announced these four Nations League games that the negative impact on players outweighed the benefits of playing, and Guardiola has regularly shouted that his players are asked to play too often.
As a result, the performances this month have been slow, with ‘bigger’ nations like France and England understandably struggling. It’s not because they are suddenly bad teams, it’s because the idea to stick four Nations League games on the end of two incredibly long seasons (with an international tournament in the middle) was as bad an idea as it always sounded.
Zinchenko heartbreak gives City boost
The whole world was urging Ukraine on to reach the World Cup — apart from Scotland and Wales — but it was the Welsh side who will compete in Qatar in November, after a heroic run from Aleks Zinchenko’s Ukraine.
However, while there will be disappointment for Zinchenko, City may be pleased to have another key man not go to Qatar, given the physical implications the tournament will have on their title-chasing squad. That’s now Zinchenko, Riyad Mahrez and Erling Haaland guaranteed to be missing out on the tournament, giving them a five week rest in the middle of the season. Their loss could be City’s gain.
Youth players given a chance
While the senior players tired, there were some useful opportunities for City’s academy stars this month. Taylor Harwood-Bellis is now England under-21’s captain, with Tommy Doyle also getting some minutes for the Young Lions. James McAtee was rewarded for a fine season with an U21 call-up and debut, while goalkeeper James Trafford also made his first appearance at that level.
Academy teammate Shea Charles made his international debut and played four times for Northern Ireland — playing for his country before making a senior appearance at club level. And there was also an under-21 debut for Belgium’s Romeo Lavia, while Brazilian Kayky helped Brazil under-20s to win a round-robin tournament against Uruguay, Paraguay and Ecuador.
Walker’s right-back battles
Kyle Walker was preferred on the right of a back-three in two of his three England appearances, and was benched for the other game. Southgate also tried Trent Alexander-Arnold, Reece James and Walker at right-back this month, with Kieran Trippier playing twice on the left. Of the four, Walker can claim to have been the most consistent and still top of the pecking order for that right-back spot under Southgate with just two games to go until the World Cup.
But for City, Walker could have a renewed fight on his hands from Joao Cancelo, who was given free reign as an attacking right-back to run down the flanks for Portugal, with two impressive goals on the underlap showing what he can do in Walker’s role rather than coming inside.
Haaland will do just fine
Haaland was fully announced as a City player after his international duties were complete, but during those games he showed City what he will offer with four goals as Norway notched 10 points from four games. A range of penalties, powerful finishes and impressive movement in the box showed his range of skills and will encourage City that he isn’t just a player who can score one-on-one. He’s got the full package.