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 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 very much 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 almost easy to forget, watching Walker’s form before and after what would prove a very troubled lockdown, that it was this time last year that Guardiola opted to bring in another right back, despite what felt like more urgent problems at left back.
Only a couple of months earlier, Walker had signed a contract 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 certainly got that and Cancelo has gradually come to realise that his best chance of getting into the team is at left back. Cancelo’s arrival seems to have given Walker that extra edge Sergio Aguero found once Gabriel Jesus joined the club.
He will be one of the first names on the City team-sheet to face Lyon in their Champions League quarter-final on Saturday and the identity of the opposition provides, in many ways, a timely reminder of the extent of Walker’s resurgence over the past 12 months, 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, by which time Walker’s slide in form after a swift return from the World Cup with England was becoming more pronounced. It would even cost the defender his place in the biggest game of the season, at home to Liverpool. And yet, any fears of a more permanent decline taking hold have been emphatically 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 Alexander-Arnold and Wan-Bissaka, Southgate is well stocked at right back. In that sense, 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 and recent suggestions that the player was given reassurances about his City future during talks with the manager were greeted with some bemusement given how influential he has become. As Real discovered.