Pep Guardiola has re-trained three more players to play in his inverted full-back system to cover for John Stones’ injury this season, which has given Manchester City additional secret weapons to turn matches back into their favour.
Stones has not played since the Community Shield more than six weeks ago, with City’s injury issues now mounting. But Guardiola’s solution has been practical work on the training ground, rather than spending on cover. As he mentioned this week, buying his way out of trouble “would be chaos for the club and we would be bankrupt”.
Walker’s progression is perhaps the most interesting, as last season Guardiola was adamant the veteran defender did not have the skillset to play the role. Gvardiol was a £77million summer signing as an orthodox centre-back but, like Akanji, has shown his ability to switch to left-back.
The end result should strike fear into the Premier League and across Europe’s elite teams. It has never been easy to pick Guardiola’s formation but now he can switch this key position at the snap of his fingers, making it impossible for opposition coaches to track. City were behind at the interval against West Ham and Red Star Belgrade in their last matches but Guardiola’s changes led to 3-1 victories for his team.
“I think that’s Pep being Pep. I think teams work us out, teams find the strategy of how they feel that they’re going to play or defend against us,” said Walker. “When we can build up in different ways, I think that puts another tool in our toolbox where we can change it mid-game and it seems to be working for us.
“At the start of the game against West Ham we played with me wide and then all of a sudden he’s pulled us inside and said me and Josko [Gvardiol] go in the middle. I feel that against Red Star there’s a lot of players who can play in the middle and out wide. I think last year there was probably only John [Stones] that could really do it.
“He’s put that pressure on Manu [Akanji] at the start of the season, he’s doing it with me and Josko now. So he’s not relying just solely — which I feel that we did last year — on John coming in to make that overload in the midfield. He’s letting all of us do it.”
In matches in the last five days, City’s response has been immediate. They have scored within a couple of minutes of the restart on both occasions and have gone onto win both games 3-1. They also fell behind to Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup and ended up winning on penalties.
Guardiola has spoken about the hunger of his players to climb another mountain after their Treble win last season, and the same can be said for the coach himself, in his eighth season in the Premier League and still finding ways to win when rival coaches mastermind a way of challenging him.
“I think it’s the manager,” said Walker. “He’s got the key ingredient. He knows when’s right to let certain players go, bring players in, freshen things up here, give people challenges here and there.
“He’s got a fine balance and how to do it and it seems to work, not just here but at the number of teams that he’s been at because he’s been very successful. I just follow orders and listen to him and hopefully that gets us over the line.”
Guardiola will have to juggle his players again for Nottingham Forest at the weekend, with Bernardo Silva carrying an injury, although Mateo Kovacic is the closest to coming back from his sidelined players.