Alex Keble looks at how upcoming opponents will attack Manchester City's depleted defence, and what tactical changes Pep Guardiola needs to do to cover.
The word ‘crisis’ is too easily thrown around in modern football; confidence is an under-rated aspect of the game, and so the natural rhythms of winning streaks and losing streaks are blown totally out of proportion. Manchester City, then, on the back of a single 3-2 defeat at Norwich City, are nowhere near crisis despite Liverpool’s five-point lead at the top of the Premier League.
Nevertheless their next five weeks do feel critical to the title race; their defensive injuries a potential season-defining issue even at this early stage of the campaign. Aymeric Laporte will spend seven months on the sidelines and John Stones is out for five weeks, leaving Nicolas Otamendi the only fit centre-back in the City squad.
Given that their win percentage without Vincent Kompany or Laporte at the back is a lowly 68%, per Sky Sports, City fans have every right to feel anxious about what will happen in their next four league games. Liverpool’s 100% start to the campaign suggests another 95+ points total this year. Every point dropped is magnified.
Pep Guardiola doesn’t sound too confident, either. Speaking to reporters after the 3-0 win at Shakhtar Donetsk, he said “Nico is 31, Fernandinho is 34, and the next alternative is 18 [Eric García]. For [the next] three or four months I don’t know what will happen. […]They cannot play every game at their age.”
So let’s take a look at the specific threat each of their upcoming Premier League opponents will pose to an Otamendi-Fernandinho axis.
Watford (h) – September 21
Man City’s home form (20 wins in the last 22 league games) suggests neither centre-back will be consistently troubled. Guardiola’s side hold 65% possession on average at the Etihad, suffocating their opponents with a high press that cuts off the counter-attack at source; City centre-backs are rarely even called into action.
However, one issue with playing Fernandinho at centre-back is it means Rodri is guaranteed to start in midfield, and the 23-year-old is yet to get up to speed with the division. In the 2-2 draw with Tottenham it was Rodri’s failure to close down Erik Lamela that allowed the Argentine to score from distance, and a mistimed tackle from the former Atletico Madrid player gave Spurs the corner from which Lucas Moura headed in.
That’s particularly problematic against such a hard-working and well-organised midfield as Abdoulaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue. Quique Sanchez Flores will deploy a narrow 4-2-2-2 formation that sits deep, absorbs pressure, and hits through the middle on the counter. In-form Gerard Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra will drift in from the flanks to put pressure on Rodri and the centre-backs.
Everton (a) – September 28
Marco Silva’s side continue to drift without a clear purpose, and yet 'Big Six' matches at Goodison Park are always lively affairs as the fans tend to help conjure a more organised, upbeat performance from the players. Gylfi Sigurdsson, Richarlison, and Moise Kean could combine to expose Fernandinho’s lack of pace and Otamendi’s poor positioning.
Fabien Delph has the technical skills to evade City’s counter-press, meaning he can help launch counter-attacks that drive at the heart of the visitors’ defence. Richarlison will no doubt play narrowly to trouble the back-pedalling, error-prone Otamendi, while Sigurdsson’s superb distribution can poke holes in a disorganised back four.
Wolves (h) – October 6
Another match in which Rodri’s presence could cause an issue, Wolves’ three-man midfield ordinarily squeezes space effectively to create low-scoring matches – although that won’t be the case unless their current run of form has ended by October.
By this point Guardiola will have to rotate (“We need another solution – Rodri or Kyle [Walker] maybe because they cannot play every game at their age”), and while Wolves don’t have a particularly piercing counter-attack, City’s shake-up could cause its own problems. If they become disjointed without their usual defence or midfield, Wolves will surely take advantage; Nuno Esperito Santo’s side are excellent at sitting deep and frustrating the opposition.
Here, the biggest threat to City is simply running out of steam and ending up with a dull 0-0 draw.
Crystal Palace (a) – October 19
After the international break, City travel to Palace, the side who famously beat them 2-3 at the Etihad in December last year. That game was typical Roy Hodgson; backs-to-the-wall defending and old-fashioned direct counter-attacks, an approach that - with a big slice of luck – could work in October.
Wilfried Zaha will probably start up front alongside Jordan Ayew, creating a fast and aerially superior partnership that could certainly unsettle Otamendi and Fernandinho; long balls in behind the defence and speed up front is the kind of simple tactical strategy that can unzip a wobbly defensive line.
Could three at the back solve Man City’s problems?
Eric Garcia is surely too young to fill in at the back and Rodri has no experience in the role, and so unless Vincent Kompany gets sacked soon (Premier League clubs can still register free agents) Guardiola is left with a very ropey back four no matter how you fit the pieces together. Perhaps, then, the best solution is to move to a back three.
Walker has experience as a right-sided centre-back in a three with England, and indeed his pace on the cover would help patch up positional errors made by either Otamendi or Fernandinho. Joao Cancelo, who made his debut from the bench against Shakhtar in midweek, can fill in at right wing-back.
A 3-5-2 makes the most sense, with Rodri, Kevin de Bruyne, and David Silva in midfield, that trio joined by the wing-backs (plus one out-stepping centre-back) during prolonged periods of City possession. Up front, Sergio Aguero and a floating Raheem Sterling would provide the firepower.
It’s certainly an option worth considering, because right now – with a back two largely untested and clearly flawed – Man City’s next four league matches all look like potential banana skins. And as Liverpool continue to steamroller their opponents, dropping points in just one of these games could prove fatal for Guardiola’s side.
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