This summer, Manchester City parted ways with four senior defenders who combined for almost 150 appearances in 16/17. Pep Guardiola has replaced three and wants to add one more central player to his defence.
While the rest of the football world is disgruntled at the (oil) money City have spent, there was no choice. Last year’s defence was heavily criticized, so upgrades were necessary. The money spent, in order to secure elite talent, will more than cover for the shortcomings of last year’s team.
Spending on defence
With the summer clearout in defence, as well as the departures of Caballero, Navas and Nolito, City had two options. The first was to risk experimenting with kids, potentially missing out on Champions League football and making future upgrades difficult. The second was to spend the necessary money to replace these players. Every club with ambition would have made the same decision and reached for the chequebook. Are we really going to pretend that City would be praised for an admirable gamble on their youth system? No, they’d have been ridiculed for not addressing obvious areas of weakness.
It should also be noted that the ‘ridiculous’ prices paid are set by selling clubs (and agents), not buying clubs. Does any rational fan truly believe that City should buy worse players because they are more affordable? That decisions on transfers should be made with the relatability of the fee to the average fan in mind? In almost every other business, the seller is criticized when the prices get silly. Here, the buyers are the villains, particularly when daring to prize away players from media darlings like Spurs or Liverpool. It’s a different story when Virgil Van Dyke looks set to miss out on what must be every child’s dream move, though.
The new full backs look to be settling in well, if preseason and social media can be trusted to tell the story.
Kyle Walker is every bit as energetic as expected. He likes to get involved, routinely interchanging passes with midfielders, and tracks back very well. Danilo, his preseason counterpart, looks like a winger. He gets into excellent positions and will be the perfect wide foil for Sané against teams who sit back.
Benjamin Mendy arrives as the most expensive defender of all time, and will require the most patience. As a defensive player he is solid and his positioning is excellent. In attack, he may intially frustrate. He’s primarily a dribbling full back and likes to bring ball out from defence. This will help when the midfield is packed, a frequent opposition tactic used to stifle Silva and de Bruyne. Dribbling, however, is not typically a successful play when extended over half of the field.
Only one of Mendy’s two primary passing instincts will work well in his new team’s system. His diagonal inside ball to edge of area should find our creative midfielders in their favourite pockets of space. However, his bending cross to the back post is too likely to be cut out by the aerial prowess of many Premier League defenders. This is not to say that he is incapable of finding the killer pass – his assists tend to come from flat balls across the penalty area. He’ll thrive when the system can get him in behind the opposition winger. This is a position where Clichy found himself a billion times, although part of me wonders whether teams simply let him in.
Two or three in central defence?
Pep has hinted that his team’s shape could change frequently. The best justification for this was the first hour of yesterday’s game against Spurs with three at the back. Before Yaya took to the field, the team relied on its central defenders playing vertical balls to the creative midfielders. Silva and de Bruyne were then able to turn into space and hit the full backs. Kompany, Otamendi and Stones all did this very well, with occasional mistakes.
If we’re going with three at the back, we’ll need at least four players that Pep trusts in those positions. It seems as though Mangala has not earned this trust, looking awkward on the ball despite his efforts. Adarabioyo needs work on his positional awareness in a standard back four. He becomes a big risk as part of a back three. We shouldn’t let the media goad us into taking that risk if he’s not ready. In any case, if we want to play some kids, others have made stronger cases this preseason.
On another note, putting only three in defence should provide more forward support to chase Ederson’s outrageous goal kicks. Guardiola has suggested these could feature more against pressing teams, having been on the receiving end while at Bayern.
Fernandinho may become the new pre-departure, pre-gobshite James Milner. He is loved for his versatility but has no secure starting role. City don’t need a shield, as they defend through smart build-up and running like “bastards“. The full backs are covered, there’s creativity in abundance, and the ‘6’ has become a linking role for a proficient passer. Fernando and Delph are also suffering from this. We’ll hear from angrier fans that the team misses a de Jong whenever we are victimized, but Pep’s system has no room for this.
Attacking from the back
The last two games have been so exciting because of the attacking philosophy that has been instilled in the squad (a Barca style of play, one might say). Seven goals against Real and Spurs over two games is pretty impressive – we could have had seven against Spurs alone – and defenders scored three of them.
The traditionalists will continue to bemoan the fact that a defender should defend first. But if City can put away their chances this year (which I’ll look at in more detail in the next article), repeating their record as the league’s fourth best defence should be enough to ensure success.
Image from 101greatgoals.com