Amid a clash of superstar names in the Manchester derby this weekend, the humble, hard-working Nolito could prove to be the difference. The summer signing is already thriving under his former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola, writes Peter Smith…
Nolito has hit the ground running at Manchester City. With two goals and an assist to his name from just 155 minutes of Premier League football, the Spaniard has proven to be the most effective forward in the country in the opening weeks of the season.
It should come as no surprise. The 29-year-old scored 25 goals and recorded 20 assists across the past two seasons with Celta Vigo before making his £14m switch to Manchester City. But more importantly, he’s also the perfect fit for Pep Guardiola’s plans.
Playing wide on the left, Nolito offers the blend of creativity and industry Guardiola looks for. It’s a style honed at Barcelona, where the forward spent three years working under the City boss and then-Barcelona B team coach Luis Enrique.
With the pace, incisiveness and trickery associated with players from that camp, Nolito successfully cut inside from his flank to strike twice at Stoke and teed up Raheem Sterling for City’s early opener against West Ham last time out. There was also a goal and an assist in the 5-0 destruction of Steaua Bucharest.
But all that has been achieved with hard work. Nolito was withdrawn with 15 minutes still to play against West Ham, but just three Manchester City players recorded more high-intensity sprints.
In Bucharest he showed his commitment to the cause by being involved in the most duels (19) and by making more tackles (4) than his team-mates.
The 5ft 9in forward may not immediately seem a perfect match for the physical Premier League, but while many foreign players take time to adapt, Nolito has slotted into a familiar role under a familiar manager.
“The style that Guardiola decides to produce needs a particular type of player and Nolito fits into that role perfectly well,” Sky Sports’ Spanish football expert Guillem Balague told Sky Sports News HQ.
“Playing on the left-hand side of the attack, he knows the system because he has been at Barcelona. So he knows when he has to dribble, when he has to go, when he has to cross, when he has to press. He knows all that, so it will not be new to him.”
Guardiola promoted Nolito from Luis Enrique’s Barcelona B team in 2010 to hand him his first-team debut at the Nou Camp. After working again with Luis Enrique at Celta Vigo in 2013/14, the best goalscoring season of his career so far, Nolito snubbed a return to Barcelona to join Guardiola’s City revolution.
Nolito says the opportunity to work with “one of the best managers in the world,” was one too good to pass up. “Guardiola knows a lot about the game and he’s going to help me progress as a player,” Nolito told City’s official website. “I’m sure he’ll get the best out of me.”
The early signs are good. But with Sergio Aguero suspended for Saturday’s Manchester derby, there will be added pressure on the Spaniard to step up. Fortunately, he’s shown previously he can deliver on the big occasion.
From helping Granada to their first win over Real Madrid in 40 years in 2013, to inspiring Celta to big results with the equaliser in a 2014 2-2 draw at Atletico Madrid and the opener in their famous 4-1 win over Barcelona in 2015, Nolito has repeatedly delivered in the spotlight.
Another notable feat on Nolito’s record is that he matched Eusebio by scoring in his first five games for Benfica in 2011. The streak included a double against Trabzonspor in Champions League qualifying which set the Portuguese club on course for a group stage battle with Manchester United.
After stepping off the bench at Estadio da Luz to help Benfica to a 1-1 draw at home to Sir Alex Ferguson’s side in the opening round of fixtures, Nolito was restricted to an observer’s role from the bench when the teams met again at Old Trafford.
A 2-2 draw put the visitors on track to win the group that night, while a subsequent defeat in Basel for United saw them crash out into the Europa League.
Nolito will hope to come out on top again this weekend. But expect him to have far more influence on the Old Trafford pitch this time around.
He may not be the star attraction but he has the potential to grab the headlines.