Julian Alvarez

Julian Alvarez spoke this week about the difficulties of trying to score goals when he gets so little space when he gets his chances for Manchester City. 24 hours later, he proved his point emphatically during a strange night at the Etihad.

“There are lots of teams who come here and sit back and wait for us to come onto them,” he said on Tuesday. “It is difficult to find space and get in behind and as a striker I’ve got lots of players around me so sometimes it’s hard to get as much time on the ball as you’re used to.”

Alvarez is something of a paradox developing this season, and at times on Wednesday he struggled again to impose himself against Sevilla in the Champions League. Then City brought on their big guns, and suddenly Alvarez showed what is possible if that space he craves is available.

He knows he is second-choice behind Erling Haaland, and if the Norwegian is fit he plays, and Alvarez is either on the bench or moved away from his natural position to accommodate his more prolific teammate.

It’s a dynamic he accepts, and says he can learn plenty from Haaland in training – while also teaching his fellow 22-year-old something himself. And that means he will only get his chances to play upfront if Haaland is fit or the game isn’t important enough. Or, alternatively, if the game is won and Alvarez is brought off the bench to rest his legs and try and add gloss to a scoreline.

More often than not, Alvarez has found that when he does play, the circumstances are against him playing as he wants to and finding space to get chances on goal.

He has started City’s final three Champions League group games, but each one had mitigating factors that stopped him influencing the game. In Copenhagen, the Blues went down to ten men after 30 minutes and barely attacked for the next 60 as they booked a place in the last-16, and both sides were content with a draw at Borussia Dortmund to secure first and second place without any dramas.

That meant this clash with Sevilla was a dead rubber with the Blues changing their attacking line-up and not paining themselves to get forward in numbers.

Similarly at Leicester at the weekend, Alvarez was limited to one shot that was later ruled offside, as the Foxes stood firm against City, who needed a brilliant Kevin De Bruyne free kick to earn three points.

Alvarez pointed to his other contributions as well as goals to what he can offer City, saying: “Our play is very intense and we win the ball back quickly. If I have to make more movements and runs off the ball, that’s what I’ll do.”

And in the first half against Sevilla, that’s what he did.

He can’t be accused of not running against the La Liga strugglers, winning the ball back from deep on a few occasions and closing down a shaky defence who insisted on playing out from the back. Like against Copenhagen, Dortmund and Leicester, there simply wasn’t space for Alvarez to operate. As a result, he was barely involved.

But you also can’t accuse Lewis of ever giving up, and when City changed their shape in the second half, his lovely slipped ball for Rico Lewis set up to equalise in the second half and showed what he can offer with a little more space.

And then his goal, running onto a beautiful Kevin De Bruyne pass, rounding the goalkeeper, and clinically finding the roof of the net, was the first time he’s shown the kind of striker that got fans excited from his time in Argentina. It was also one of the first times he’s had so much space to run into since moving to Manchester, as well as having an in-game situation where he was able to make a run for De Bruyne to pick out.

This was another glimpse at what Alvarez can offer – a performance full of hard work and moments of quality, although maybe not on a consistent-enough basis to displace Haaland just yet. And however encouraging those signs are, Guardiola will be aware that City average a goal every 27 minutes with Haaland on the pitch. Without him, they need 50 minutes to score – down from 60 before kick-off on Wednesday. It’s not a terrible statistic, but it shows how less prolific they are without their number nine.

It feels the best way to get Alvarez scoring is to have him playing off Haaland, if possible. However, that isn’t always possible, and playing out wide or as a number ten isn’t Alvarez’s natural game. His role in this squad is to be the goalscorer when Haaland can’t be.

So far, and not always for reasons in his control, he’s not been able to do that. The second half against Sevilla felt like a step forward in Alvarez’s development at City, but on the evidence of the first half, City will be hoping Haaland’s injury will allow him to be back sooner rather than later.

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