After perhaps the most entertaining Champions League knockout tie you’ll ever see, Manchester City have a two goal cushion and that’s exactly what they wanted from the home leg, even if three away goals is less than ideal.
What will worry City, though, is that they couldn’t control the game, despite dominating possession: Monaco still found away to counter attack more often than not.
Tonight, as they relax after a job well done, the champions of England Leicester City face Sevilla in the first knockout round, and one Manchester City player won’t have the night off.
Samir Nasri, on loan at Sevilla, currently challenging the Barcelona / Real Madrid hegemony, is one of the form names in La Liga this season. After leaving Manchester in search of first team football, he certainly found it in Sevilla: not only is he now playing regularly and playing well, but he has also been given a role in which he seems to be thriving in the centre of midfield. So much so that, on first glance, he no longer even resembles Samir Nasri.
“Nasri is like a player from a different era. He has that amateur’s spirit where you want to enjoy the game,” his coach Jorge Sampaoli told Sid Lowe of The Guardian. Not only doesn’t that sound like the former Arsenal player, but in fact, it sounds like the polar opposite. It seems he is a man reborn.
Before the end of last season, Nasri told Reuters that when Pep Guardiola arrived, he would find a fit and ready player. “He’s just going to be a lucky man because I will be really hungry. I am the type of player for his philosophy.” Instead, the Frenchman was one of a handful of players forced to train away from the main squad during pre-season after coming back from the summer break overweight after apparently taking “hunger” in a literal sense.
It turns out that he wasn’t wrong, though. Nasri really has proven himself to be hungry. Hungry for first team football and hungry to show what he can do on the pitch. Hungry for the ball, too. Averaging 94 passes per game in the Champions League so far this season, Nasri scored the winning goal in Sevilla’s victory over Dinamo Zagreb in October in a game where he set the record number of passes in a Champions League game since records began. His 145 passes that day inflate his Champions League numbers overall, of course, but with over 70 on average over the course of this La Liga season, there’s no doubt that Nasri is Sampaoli’s main creative outlet.
His parent club, meanwhile, don’t have a player to better that this season. Fernandinho averages just over 67 passes per game, John Stones around 66. And while Nasri is breaking records in the Champions League, City’s best passer in that competition is Nicolas Otamendi, averaging just over 61 passes per game.
Number of passes proves very little, of course. Style of play and the opposition you face will dictate how many passes it’s possible to play. And City have had to work out how best to negotiate the fact that most opposition teams now fly at them in the most aggressive high-pressing fashions. That’s not a situation that lends itself to many neat, frivolous passes, even if Guardiola’s team somehow manages to dazzle with intricate moves anyway.
This season, Nasri has been Sevilla’s man in the middle to get forward and join the attack as well as sit deep to offer his services as an out-ball. He is still the kind of attacking midfielder with an eye for goal we all know, is still devastating on the counter attack and still possessing of a canny knack of making the right decision. But this season he has added a thirst to control games, too.
It’s not just the fact that Nasri is still well-liked in Manchester that should have Blues watching his performances against Leicester over the next few weeks. Nor is it even his performances, though. Not by themselves, anyway.
If he was right when he said that Guardiola would find a hungry player, he was also right when he said that he was exactly the type of player who would fit into the coach’s philosophy. At the time, maybe people would have laughed at that comment, too. The Frenchman can often come across as sulky and self-centred, and as Pep Guardiola’s required worth-ethic has caused the casualty of no less a player than Sergio Aguero, it was always hard to see how Nasri could have fared any better.
Yet City have suffered problems this season in the very position in which Nasri is currently excelling in Spain. Ilkay Gundogan is a long-term absentee and Fernandinho is filling in as a makeshift full-back (though he does seem well-suited to that role more permanently, too), while Fabian Delph and Fernando don’t seem to be the most trusted members of the squad. Against Tottenham Hotspur in January, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne were joined in the midfield by Yaya Toure in deeper midfield role: a strikingly similar attack-ready, deep-lying role to the one Nasri operates for Sevilla this season.
And so if City fans want a team that isn’t their own to succeed this season, it should be Nasri’s Sevilla. Because Samir was right: he was hungry and he would fit in. A changed man, a player who runs games, and best of all for Blues fans, still contracted to Manchester City.