Will central defence cost Manchester City the title?
Background image: Oldelpaso, CC BY-SA 3.0
Back-to-back Premier League champions, Manchester City secured the title by 19 points in 2017/18 and a narrow one point last season. Pep Guardiola’s team is predominantly built on a free-flowing, devastating attack yet defensive competence is also hugely important. Claiming England’s best tag is impossible without a strong rearguard.
Last campaign, City conceded 23 league goals, only finishing behind Liverpool for times breached as well as clean sheets. Four central defenders contributed to that record. Aymeric Laporte played 35 games in his first full term. John Stones was given 24 opportunities. Nicolas Otamendi turned out on 18 occasions. Captain Vincent Kompany, who amassed the fewest matches, proved crucial during season’s run-in. Unforgettably, the Belgian produced a stunning strike against Leicester City, one which was ultimately decisive in the title race.
Kompany ended his 11-year spell with the Citizens to take up Anderlecht’s player/manager role. He leaves a gaping void. His leadership qualities, will to win, physicality along with well-timed tackles had an influential part in four Premier League successes.
There were solutions available in the transfer window. Harry Maguire was heavily linked to the Etihad before joining rivals Manchester United. Juventus new boy, Matthijs de Ligt would have been an excellent addition. Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake was another contender. For either footballing or financial reasons, perhaps both, Guardiola stuck with what’s already there.
Eliaquim Mangala has since departed for Valencia. As a result, the English champions are down to only three recognised centre-backs. Of those, Laporte stands out. The Frenchman’s status continues to rise after arriving from Athletic Bilbao in January 2018. He regularly demonstrates his excellent passing range while remaining solid defensively.
Stones shows confidence in possession, too. The Englishman combines that with decent pace. Not one to recklessly dive into challenges, his intelligence has many believing he will develop into a genuine world-class talent.
City’s other option is Otamendi. A typical Argentine defender, he lives for tackling, battling, rarely giving opponent’s a moment’s rest. His value was displayed when named in 2017/18’s Premier League Team of the Year.
So far this season, the Citizens have picked up four points from two games. A comprehensive 5-0 victory away at West Ham United ten days ago was followed by Saturday’s 2-2 at home to Tottenham Hotspur. Laporte started both matches. Otamendi came in for Stones against Spurs due to the latter’s slight muscle injury which rules him out for at least another week.
Of the two goals conceded to Tottenham, the first, in particular, should have been avoided. Erik Lamela was afforded too much room to pick out Ederson’s bottom corner. Quality will punish such mistakes. Fortunately for Guardiola’s side, a sensational attack should be sufficient to win their next four encounters against Bournemouth, Brighton & Hove Albion, Norwich City then Watford. After that, though, they face Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Players like Richarlison, Diogo Jota will capitalise on any repeat errors.
Guardiola is intent on his centre-backs playing out, showing composure to start attacks. It’s no doubt working for him. Still, he needs real leaders to keep the ship steady. At Barcelona, the Catalan-born had Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique. Bayern Munich boasted Jerome Boateng. He requires one or more of his current crop to emerge.
Laporte is the obvious candidate. Not only his gaffer’s favourite, but he’s also currently performing best. The 25-year-old isn’t far from the three aforementioned players’ level.
Owning a similar style, Stones hasn’t quite hit Laporte’s heights. To do so, he must cut out his errors. Right now, the 25-year-old depends on a steady presence beside him.
Otamendi succeeds where Stones lacks yet fails where Stones thrives. He isn’t as comfortable in possession. For that reason, the 31-year-old is third in line.
Considering City’s expected title battle with Liverpool, they have to stay as solid as possible. Possessing the division’s top defender in Virgil van Dijk, the Reds don’t give much away. When these two teams clash on 9 November, it’s likely to tell which is better placed.
January offers the Citizens a chance to address their shortage. Luring Ake will strengthen squad depth, but he isn’t an upgrade on what’s already there. One who is and could be tempted is Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly. He’ll reportedly cost over £100 million. Having recently opted against paying the necessary £80 million for Maguire, such a deal is improbable.
Prior to thinking about a new addition, Guardiola must concentrate on Laporte, Stones, and Otamendi. Should the situation deteriorate, both Kyle Walker, Fernandinho are centre-back options. Neither is ideal, though. Each excels in their natural position. Erik Garcia, at 18, is one for the future.
City’s attack is brilliant enough to outscore any side, win any competition. Their central defence doesn’t stack up. Despite remaining title favourites owing to the quality and depth elsewhere which no other rival boasts, should they fail to secure their third successive Premier League, this will be the reason.