How Walker over­came the doubters to be­come key player for City again

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Football - By James Ducker NORTH­ERN FOOT­BALL CORRESPOND­ENT

One of the more emo­tive im­ages from Manch­ester City’s Cham­pi­ons League vic­tory over Real Madrid last Fri­day was the sight of Kyle Walker drop­ping to his knees, bow­ing his head and punch­ing the ground re­peat­edly in de­light af­ter watch­ing Gabriel Je­sus hook the ball ex­pertly past Thibaut Cour­tois to re­store their lead.

But it was a three-minute spell, soon af­ter Je­sus’s del­i­cate fin­ish, that of­fered a neat illustrati­on of the right-back’s tal­ents and sig­nif­i­cance within Pep Guardi­ola’s sys­tem, and a re­minder of why, for all the abil­i­ties of Trent Alexan­der-Arnold and Aaron Wan-Bis­saka, Gareth South­gate’s door still re­mains ajar for Walker.

One mo­ment, Walker had stepped into mid­field as a sec­ond pivot and, from just in­side the Real half, was cir­cu­lat­ing the ball briskly be­tween Ro­dri and Ilkay Gun­do­gan as City cre­ated the space for an­other at­tack. Next, he was in an ad­vanced mid­field po­si­tion, re­ceiv­ing the ball 20 yards out and lash­ing a shot at Cour­tois that the Real goal­keeper beat away. And then, when Marco Asen­sio fed a pass into Toni Kroos, Walker read the dan­ger bril­liantly, rob­bing the Real mid­fielder of the ball with a per­fectly timed in­ter­cep­tion to halt the threat of a counter-at­tack.

City sup­port­ers had great fun post­ing memes of Walker emp­ty­ing his pock­ets that night to re­veal a mo­bile phone, a set of car keys and Haz­ard, who, ad­mit­tedly, was well short of full fit­ness. But Walker’s job was about much more than just mar­shalling the Bel­gium for­ward.

He has be­come in­te­gral not only to the de­struc­tion of op­po­si­tion at­tacks but the con­struc­tion of City’s build-up play and, given Guardi­ola’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to play a high line de­spite the is­sues at cen­tre-half this season – such that he has made it a pri­or­ity in the trans­fer mar­ket to ad­dress – Walker has prob­a­bly never been more im­por­tant to the side. He made nine suc­cess­ful re­cov­er­ies against Real and the sight of him rush­ing in to sweep up be­hind City’s cen­tral de­fend­ers this term is not un­com­mon.

If Liver­pool’s Alexan­der-Arnold of­fers a rare at­tack­ing threat and Wan-Bis­saka is prov­ing at Manch­ester United there are not many full-backs bet­ter in their own de­fen­sive third, Walker is the ex­pe­ri­enced all-rounder. With City’s cap­tain, David Silva, soon to de­part, a spot within the play­ers’ lead­er­ship team will open up and it would be lit­tle sur­prise if it ended up go­ing to Walker.

It is easy to for­get, watch­ing Walker’s form be­fore and af­ter what would prove a trou­bled lock­down, that it was this time last year that Guardi­ola opted to bring in an­other right-back, de­spite more ur­gent prob­lems at left-back.

Only a cou­ple of months ear­lier, Walker had signed an ex­ten­sion un­til 2024, but the player was left un­der no il­lu­sions that Joao Cancelo

was there to pro­vide di­rect com­pe­ti­tion. If Guardi­ola’s in­ten­tion was to get a re­ac­tion from Walker, he has achieved that, and Cancelo has re­alised that his best chance of get­ting into the team is at left-back.

Walker will be one of the first names on the City team sheet to face Lyon in their Cham­pi­ons League quar­ter-fi­nal to­mor­row and the iden­tity of the op­po­si­tion pro­vides, in many ways, a re­minder of the ex­tent of his resur­gence and why you might not bet against his be­lief that he could still be play­ing Pre­mier League foot­ball at 37.

City lost to Lyon in Septem­ber 2018 and, two months later, were twice forced to come from be­hind to sal­vage a 2-2 draw against the same op­po­nents, by which time Walker’s slide in form was be­com­ing more pro­nounced. And yet, any fears of a more per­ma­nent de­cline have been quashed and, now 30, Walker might even be play­ing the best foot­ball of his ca­reer.

He had been in line for a re­turn to the Eng­land fold in March, be­fore foot­ball’s sus­pen­sion, and, with the player des­per­ate to go to the Eu­ros next sum­mer, he will hope for an­other chance. With Kieran Trip­pier and Reece James to call upon in ad­di­tion to Alexan­derArnold and Wan-Bis­saka, South­gate is well stocked at right-back.

Whether Walker’s an­tics dur­ing lock­down have a bear­ing on South­gate’s de­ci­sion re­mains to be seen. He was dis­ci­plined by City af­ter breach­ing quar­an­tine rules by host­ing a party with two sex work­ers, for which he is­sued an im­me­di­ate apol­ogy. But his re­la­tion­ship with Guardi­ola re­mains strong.

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