Manchester City wrapped up the Premier League title with five games to spare. As the season winds down, it’s inevitable that the thoughts and attention of all their star players will turn to the World Cup this summer.
Their entire attacking corps will be on the way to Russia shortly after the season ends, scattered across a handful of teams, all with hopes of contending for the title. Here’s how the goal-scoring unit of England’s most dangerous attack will fit in with their respective national team sides.
Sergio Aguero, Argentina
Despite being the most established goal scorer of the bunch at City, Aguero plays the smallest role for his national team. He also had knee surgery as soon as City clinched, although the plan is for him to be healthy and ready to go by the time Argentina kick off this summer. Even if he is healthy, though, despite his stardom, Aguero’s World Cup role will likely be somewhat peripheral. Argentina have a glut of strikers, and while they continue to generally play a two-striker system, those strikers are almost always Lionel Messi (duh) and Gonzalo Higuain.
Aguero’s most likely role will be as a supersub, coming off the bench to chase the game in the event that Argentina find themselves trailing, or spelling the two starting strikers when Argentina are protecting a lead. When he’s brought in to augment the front two, it will likely be as a wide forward. Aguero is fast and tricky with the ball at his feet, so it’s understandable to use him that way, but it’s not his best role. There is nothing Aguero does better than find pockets of attacking space in the penalty area and bang home cutbacks from wingers. He probably won’t get a chance to do that this summer.
Aguero might be a star at City, but he’s destined to play a supporting role for Argentina.
Gabriel Jesus, Brazil
Gabriel Jesus has spent his time at Manchester City competing for minutes with Aguero. For Brazil he’ll likely be doing the same thing with Roberto Firmino. But while Jesus and Aguero are similar players, thus making it easy for City manager Pep Guardiola to switch between them, Jesus and Firmino are entirely different. Jesus is a more traditional striker, happy to inhabit the box and contribute mainly as a scorer. Firmino is a more creative forward, more willing to drop deep, get on the ball and operate not only as a scorer, but also as a playmaker for his fellow forwards.
Jesus may well get the nod this summer simply because Brazil have so many other attacking players who are creative hubs. The team is obviously built around Neymar who, if he’s fully recovered from injury, which he insists he will be, will dominate the ball on the left wing. Barcelona’s Philippe Coutinho could see time either on the right wing or in midfield, and he’s an absolute passing machine. Then there’s Douglas Costa, who is a true winger, but also has carried a large creative role for Juventus all season.
It’s almost impossible for any national team to pack as much creativity onto the field as a club side like Manchester City does, but Brazil come close. If it all comes together, Jesus will have the same type of elite service he’s used to at City, and he’ll be banging in the goals all tournament.
Leroy Sane, Germany
Germany have had a tremendous amount of success over the last generation, and they’ve done it all without a superstar traditional winger like Sane. At the 2014 World Cup the winger roles were occupied either by creative players like Mario Gotze and Mesut Ozil, or a secondary striker like Thomas Muller. The closest thing to a real winger that Germany had was Andre Schurrle, who has the pace of a winger but is a more direct striking option. They just didn’t have a winger like Sane.
Sane has had a breakout season this year for City. His nine goals and 12 assists don’t fully capture just how electric and unstoppable he was with the ball at his feet. He consistently terrorized defenders bringing the ball into the opposition’s box, pulling defenders out of position, and creating the kind of havoc that his teammates could take advantage of.
But because he’s only 22 years old, and this was truly his first breakout season, Sane’s performances haven’t translated to his national team yet. During World Cup qualification he played only 114 total minutes, making one start and two substitute appearances. He did, however, appear on the left wing for Germany in both of their most recent friendlies, coming in as a substitute against Spain and starting against Brazil.
It’s clear that Sane brings a unique set of skills to the German side. It’s unclear just how much Germany will utilize those skills.
Raheem Sterling, England
Unlike Sane with Germany, Sterling is set to be a fixture for England. This Three Lions squad has a young dynamic attacking group spearheaded by Sterling and Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane. Some combination of Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will likely round out the attacking corps, which seems set to line up as a slightly unorthodox 3-4-3.
Sterling’s contributions to City can sometimes be overlooked. His teammates Leroy Sane, David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne were all nominated for the Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year award, while he was left off the list. But Sterling’s contributions to City are no less important. He had 17 goals and eight assists, and it was the two wingers working in concert that forced teams to defend both sides of the field at once, and prevented defenses from loading up on either particular winger.
If England do go deep in this World Cup it will be because they figure out a way to turn their dynamic attacking talent into a cohesive goal-scoring force. And if that happens, Sterling will be at the heart of it, coming in off the right wing to create chances for himself and the rest of England’s young stars.
David Silva, Spain
Spain’s problem is that they can’t stop producing great midfielders. So, while being a creative attacking midfielder is clearly the thing that David Silva is best at, when he plays for Spain he takes up a slightly different role. Some combination of Andres Iniesta, Thiago, Koke and Isco will occupy the midfield creative spots, while Silva plays on the right wing, where he is obligated to add goals to his robust creative portfolio.
This is certainly a plan that can work. Silva led the team with five goals in qualifying. He is an incredibly savvy soccer player, and knows how to move in concert with his teammates while in possession of the ball to find opportunities to cut onto his preferred left foot and to shoot. As long as Spain’s possession game is working, this approach is fine.
The problem is that while Silva is a fantastically skilled player, he’s also 32 years old and even in his younger days was never particularly speedy. This hurts Spain in transition. If teams can effectively press them, they will be slow to break in behind them. If teams manage to turn them over, they can beat Silva down the field. (It’s why Silva is one of the most quietly vicious tactical foulers in the game; he’s incredibly skilled at kicking opponents before they can break away from him.) If Spain can control games, Silva will be very effective as a slightly unconventional right winger, but in the unlikely event that they can’t strangle opponents with possession, Silva may ultimately become a liability.
Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium
Kevin De Bruyne lives a blessed life. At City he gets to play alongside a midfield maestro in Silva with some combination of Sane, Aguero, Jesus and Sterling in front of him. When he goes on national team duty with Belgium, he gets superstars like Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens to feed the ball to, and a manager in Roberto Martinez who is thrilled to let his teams attack and treats defending as an afterthought.
Belgium are a team stacked with attacking talent, and De Bruyne gets to be the conductor behind it all. He’s the one who will slide throughballs to Hazard as the Chelsea winger gallops behind a defense, or slip a clever reverse ball to Lukaku in a crowded penalty area. If Belgium make a surprise run deep into the tournament, it will be because De Bruyne, just as he has at City, will use his prodigious passing skills to free his teammates from defenders and allow them to score the kinds of breathtaking goals they are capable of. And, of course, he can always smash a couple from distance himself.
Top Photo: Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne celebrates with his teammates.