Julian Alvarez almost certainly would not have taken the free kick if Kevin de Bruyne had been fit and on the pitch. Nor, for that matter, if Ilkay Gundogan or Riyad Mahrez had stayed. The Algerian gravitated to many a dead-ball situation. The German possesses the kind of silken touch that equips him to take them, too.
But it was Alvarez. The fact it went in stemmed largely from an awful error from the Crvena Zvezda goalkeeper Omri Glazer, though it did underline the reality that a free kick aimed for a teammate can turn into a shot if no one else applies a touch. The fact Alvarez was taking it was instructive in itself. He also struck the upright at West Ham on Saturday with a free kick.
He was on corner duty, too, which would not have happened when City could look to De Bruyne or Mahrez to whip the ball in. If the champions’ teamsheet has been stripped of some of the stardust and some of the quality of late – and will be denied still more with Bernardo Silva out for a few games – a theme has developed: if there is a void, Alvarez will fill it. If there is a sudden vacancy, he will apply.
When City trailed to Crvena Zvezda, needing a saviour, Alvarez scored twice in a 3-1 victory. A regular substitute last season has become a starter, beginning seven of eight games. While Matheus Nunes and Jeremy Doku are the new signings in the forward half of the team, Alvarez is ahead of a £100m pair in the pecking order.
If De Bruyne tended to be seen as Haaland’s sidekick last season, now that is Alvarez. His first goal, however, reminded Pep Guardiola more of his former captain. Alvarez ran beyond Haaland and on to his disguised pass, past the goalkeeper, adding the finish.
“It was really good: the action, the assist from Erling,” Guardiola said. “Last season we had Gundogan in that position; he was in incredible form. With Gundo gone and Kevin injured, we need players to be close to Erling; don’t put all the responsibility on the shoulders of Erling to score goals.”
Which Alvarez has not, by finding the net in every game at the Etihad this season. If City’s equaliser showed the merit of deploying a player who is a second striker by trade in an advanced midfield role, who had a willingness to get in the box, it was also notable he picked up the ball in the No 10 role.
He is operating in a hybrid position: part midfielder, part forward. He certainly isn’t a classic No 10: the definition tends to involve more creativity whereas Alvarez’s defining attribute may be his eager running. Yet he is accumulating assists: two at West Ham on Saturday, one at Burnley on the opening night.
“Every single game, he is working: scoring goals, making assists,” added Guardiola. If his teams have always been known for their technical ability, there is an increasing physicality. Alvarez may symbolise that. It is nevertheless notable that Guardiola’s last Argentinian No 10 was Lionel Messi: Alvarez, more of an all-rounder, less of an exceptional talent, has emerged as the Spaniard’s modern favourite.
“He is so young,” the manager said. “What a signing the club has done from Argentina. He has everything: fighting, goals, assists, an incredible lovely guy. Playing behind Erling, he is an incredible threat.”
The price formed part of the initial appeal: the £14.9m fee renders him more of a bargain when he is pivotal. It meant his arrival was camouflaged by Haaland’s; partnering Messi for his country propelled him to greater prominence and prompted questions if he could remain an understudy at club level.
“He is the same player like he was last season,” said Guardiola. “Being a World Cup winner doesn’t mean you have to play, you have to do it all the time.” That was his attitude then. But now Alvarez is playing all the time, a player with a sudden ubiquity.
In the last 12 months, he has won the World Cup, the FA Cup, the Premier League, the Champions League and the European Super Cup. If it may make him the answer to a quiz question in the future, he has proved the solution whenever Guardiola, shorn of one of his class acts, has looked for someone to step in. The absence of City’s old guard has proved the opportunity Alvarez needed, and has taken.