Alvarez steps in for De Bruyne.
This season still has plenty of challenging games left for Manchester City, but owing to the flexible talent of Julian Alvarez, they haven’t really missed Kevin De Bruyne that much thus far.
The World Cup winner needed more playing time this year, so De Bruyne’s setback has worked in his favor. Although the Belgian was a teammate of his, he has taken over the attacking midfield position as his own.
Alvarez provides another attacking option, but it’s evident that he lacks De Bruyne’s inventiveness, which may become more of a problem in upcoming matches. He and Erling Haaland have excellent chemistry, and he makes somewhat deeper runs that are challenging for defenses to stop.
He was in an unexpected place to find De Bruyne for City’s opening goal against Fulham, standing just in front of the net and prepared to take advantage of Haaland’s poor finish.
After the break he became Haaland’s supplier. He seemed well-positioned to score before being hauled down for the penalty that resulted in the fourth goal, but Tim Ream’s fortunate deflection of his through ball for the Norwegians’ first goal prevented him from scoring.
Prior to this, Alvarez and Haaland had started and finished the previous two Premier League games. Despite how effective the 23-year-old is in that capacity, there may come a day when it becomes difficult to rest Haaland because of this. He rewrote the entire game, giving Alvarez only a minute.
Akanji’s midfield role
With John Stones unavailable it was Manuel Akanji who stepped into midfield from centre-back this week, allowing Mateo Kovacic to step forward a line when City had possession.
City’s central defenders are so comfortable on the ball that most of them can do a job in midfield and Akanji is certainly no exception. Ruben Dias is comfortable defending one-on-one against Raul Jimenez and so aggressive was that defence that Dias was happy to push on into the opposition half to press Fulham or try and win the ball.
It took City a while to establish control of this game but Akanji was involved in their first goal. He was playing in front of Rodri when he collected possession and kept it moving to Kovacic, who produced the line-breaking moment with a through ball to Haaland.
Foden’s Strategic Maneuver
Although Phil Foden started the game on the left wing, he had trouble getting involved. Foden was unable to affect the game because City was unable to move the ball out to him in risky situations.
Just beyond the halfway mark of the half, he was shifted to the right and instantly moved from the perimeter to the center of the action.
His first moment there was to volley a ball back across goal that you would have expected Haaland to be on the end of. A few minutes later he got the Etihad crowd off their seats, swapping passes with Akanji before jinking his way past a couple of defenders and into the sights of Bernd Leno. Foden looked for the pass to Haaland and but for a desperate Issa Diop clearance, the Norwegian would have scored.
Foden almost stood up a cross onto Haaland’s head late in the first half, when switching back on to his left foot, and was a lively presence after the break as well. He was far more threatening on the right, given room to drift inside by Kyle Walker’s presence on the touchline outside of him.
Bernardo’s ire Towards the Referee
This season’s rule changes have put referees under fire, but several of Michael Oliver’s decisions here, particularly in the first half, infuriated City players and supporters. In a short period of time during the first half, Fulham was awarded multiple free kicks that appeared to be rather soft.
In one of those, substitute Luke Harris, 18, was knocked to the ground by Rodri. Although it appeared that the Spaniard had just outperformed everyone else, Oliver blew the whistle and subsequently jailed Rodri for disobedience. Bernardo Silva had to be hauled away from a dispute with fourth official Michael Salisbury as there was rage in the stands and on the bench.
City’s anger with the officials had subsided by half-time, when it was Fulham who were rightly livid with the offside call that went again them for Nathan Ake’s goal. Akanji was clearly interfering with play when the ball went past him, to the point that Bernd Leno stopped his own movement towards the ball when it was near Akanji.
When VAR confirmed the goal Fulham’s players looked incredulous, to the point they refused to kick-off for a while as they continued their protests, with Marco Silva protesting the decision on the touchline.
It is instinctive to scan the technical area on your left when you are seated in the press box at the Etihad and watch for Pep Guardiola’s response at various game-changing moments. In that big room, the Catalan is almost always there, and he rarely controls his emotions.
On Saturday, Juanma Lillo provided an entirely different mood. Early on, the 57-year-old was hardly noticeable in the technical area, and it wasn’t until City was struggling for consistency in the middle of the first half that he finally made an appearance. Within a few minutes, he had returned to his seat, and that technical area frequently remained empty while Fulham’s coaching staff was constantly occupied by Marco Silva.