Even when things are not going Manchester City’s way, Pep Guardiola does not always make early substitutions, but he knew something had to change against West Ham on Wednesday night.
“Another pace,” he revealed, “We needed a little bit more.”
Riyad Mahrez was the first to be hooked, on 55 minutes, and Leroy Sane followed soon afterwards.
Guardiola later admitted that Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva have become his first-choice options for the wide roles and that it would have been “easy” to pick them against West Ham, but fatigue meant he could not.
They had enough in the tank to change the game but it must be some concern for Guardiola that quality players like Sane and Mahrez were not able to come in and do the job from the start.
He said on Tuesday that everybody in his squad needs to learn from Oleksandr Zinchenko and perhaps he had Sane and Mahrez in mind.
Sane has lost his place in the front three to Bernardo Silva of late and this was Mahrez’s first start in the league since December 27.
Guardiola says both will play in the coming weeks because of City’s packed fixture list but warned them they must improve: “They know what they have to do – train harder, compete harder.”
Both have been left out of Guardiola’s match day squads this season following concerns over their attitude.
Sane’s situation was described as apparently “irreconcilable” early in the campaign but it must be said that he has bounced back from those more serious problems.
Mahrez was left out against Huddersfield in January after he had complained about his lack of league minutes.
“They have to be happy; no other solution,” Guardiola said in October of his players. “If they are professional, they know what it is.
“If they have bad faces, bad moods or want to show how disappointed they are, they will have big problems because they are not going to play.”
That is how they can learn from Zinchenko, the unassuming attacking midfielder turned left-back.
“In the first eight fixtures he didn’t play one minute, and in the period that we are together I never saw one bad face, one bad training session,” Guardiola said of the 22-year-old.
“The day after the games always it’s difficult for the guys who don’t play and most of the guys want to show me how disappointed they are.
“Then the day before the game they are nice again. This guy is completely the opposite. That is the reason why he always plays well.”
Zinchenko was used as an emergency left-back last season but generally only in City’s most winnable games, and usually at home.
This time around, however, he has been trusted in more testing environments and, of late, he has looked more and more assured, not least in Sunday’s Carabao Cup final.
Guardiola’s praise was put to Zinchenko on Wednesday evening and, while he insisted he never heard anything about it, he revealed that a difficult loan spell helped forge the character that his boss now appreciates so much.
“To be honest, I had a tough period when I was in PSV in Holland,” he told reporters. “I didn’t play there for some reasons and I was upset for a few months.
“After that, I did an analysis about myself and there was no point [being like that], you have to be professional and you have to accept your situation and improve yourself.
“Only this way you can become a good player, a top player.”
There is one situation he did not accept, however.If City had had their way last summer, he would have signed for Wolves. But with everything in place between the two clubs, he dug his heels in and refused to leave – even when told he had to – insisting he could make it at the Etihad Stadium.
Perhaps he got his indomitable spirit from City’s captain. Zinchenko was unwilling to pick out any particular team-mate as an especially close friend in the dressing room, but he had no hesitation in highlighting the one man who has given him a helping hand.
“I can say Vincent Kompany because a few times he has stayed with me on the pitch after training sessions to show me some details. It is good for me, he is a living legend and his advice for me is so important.”
Yet despite his current form, and the opinion of his manager, it would be something of a surprise if he were playing this much next season.
Amid Guardiola’s high praise he did say the Ukrainian “is going to make a long career, I don’t know if here – hopefully – or away at another place.”
Benjamin Mendy was back in the squad on Wednesday and City want a new left-back in the summer, too.
While he says he is “still learning”, he sees himself as more a left-back than a midfielder and maybe he can reinvent himself again: “I can play any position right now, to be fair.”
While his confidence is clearly high, it is Zinchenko’s humility that has so impressed his manager. The City dressing room might need a bit more of that as the season gets even tougher.