It’s fair to say this season hasn’t gone exactly to plan for Manchester City.
With the defence depleted so soon after the departure of talisman Vincent Kompany, Pep Guardiola has been spinning players when picking his backline.
Midfielder Fernandinho has slotted in at centre-back and impressed but City have still struggled.
While the Premier League champions beat Burnley 4-1 on Tuesday night, Guardiola’s insistence that his squad will not need to be reinforced in January certainly raised eyebrows.
We spoke to Ian Cheeseman, author of Treble Triumph, the story of Manchester City’s season with Vincent Kompany, and Harry Winters of CityXtra, one of the biggest independent City fan sites, to get the lowdown on the state of play at The Etihad...
How would you rate the season so far?
IC: After the enormous highs of the previous two seasons it was inevitable that you couldn’t keep that standard up. It was unprecedented what City have done. It’s almost impossible to keep going at that intense level.
CX: The season certainly hasn’t hit the heights of the past two but we have seen glimpses of the glittering football we have become accustomed to under Pep Guardiola. I would say it has been more frustrating than disappointing, not just because of recent performances but also given the continual problems with injuries.
How badly have injuries affected the side this season?
IC: I think Aymeric Laporte’s injury, particularly because Vincent Kompany departed in the summer too meaning we effectively lost the best two centre-backs in one fell swoop, has been very significant. Laporte was not only a key defender but also a good distributor of the ball from the back.
CX: Injuries have had a massive impact on City this season. The injury to Laporte has had a huge effect because Laporte has become an integral member of the City side since he joined and his injury is very much the reason for City’s defensive woes. The Frenchman is also important when moving forward - much of City’s play out from the back comes from him. City don’t seem to have clicked since his injury and it has seemed fairly disjointed.
How has the depleted defence fared?
IC: Fernandinho is an exceptional player. For him to be converted into a centre-back, doesn’t surprise me but he is not a centre-back. He can read the game and he can make great interceptions. The two centre-backs playing alongside him, Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones, are under a lot more scrutiny this season and a lot more pressure because City are not playing as well overall; they’re not retaining possession as well, they’re not attacking as well, they’re not playing as far up the field.
CX: Let’s be honest, the defence hasn’t fared very well. Despite having two experienced centre backs, as well as some young upcoming defenders, Guardiola has opted to use Fernandinho, and, although he has done well, huge weaknesses remain. Several vulnerabilities are continually being exploited by the opposition making City’s task of victory even harder as they are leaking goals.
Without Fernandinho in his natural position, do you think the team has been affected?
IC: I think the loss of Fernandinho ironically in the central defensive midfield role is quite significant. In my humble opinion, the single biggest difference between City of last season and this has been the absence of Fernandinho from his preferred role. Under Mancini, Yaya Toure played that role, he was phenomenal. He caught the headlines and people remember him for his charging runs and goals but actually his distribution was the highly significant, consistent part of what Toure did. An amazing player in that role.
Fernandinho had a tough act to follow but somehow, unbelievably, he did it. He might not be Yaya Toure, charging forward, scoring as many goals but in terms of his positioning from that back four and protecting them and setting up the attacks and tempo, is when he’s at his best. Technically, Rodri looks a decent player, he keeps possession well but lacks the threat that Fernandinho had. I think in that position, Fernandinho is the pivot to going forward.
CX: Fernandinho has been a big miss despite the summer signing of Rodri. That particular position Fernandinho plays is so important to how Pep Guardiola sets up and the Brazilian has very much made the role his own in recent years. Both defensively and offensively, Fernandinho is what makes the City team click. Him not being in midfield is massive and sadly neither Rodri or Gundogan seem to be able to fill the gap.
Are you worried by Guardiola’s assessment that you don’t need to make any signings at the back?
IC: If they feel as though they’ve got a serious chance of winning the Champions League, then they have to have a top-notch, quality defender. It’s almost sad in a way that Pep admitted that Fernandinho, he didn’t say these words but more or less said he’s the first-choice centre-back and one of the other two as second-choice. Well, one is an Argentina international centre-back and one is an England international centre-back. So, if a 34-year-old Brazil international, who has never really played regularly at centre-back, is above those two in the pecking order, that doesn’t say a lot about what he thinks of the other two.
By saying what he’s said publically, that’s he’s happy with what he’s got, I don’t think they’ll be too chuffed hearing that. It’s not exactly a vote of confidence.
CX: As a supporter, I don’t think you should "worry" that one of the most successful managers in modern football doesn’t want to sign a defender as he clearly feels there is no need. As with Laporte, he came in January and, although he made his debut immediately after joining, it took him to settle. At this time City side need more stability at the back and a new signing is likely to do the opposite. Laporte is also expected to return in January and there are other complications with a new signing - City would need to offload a player as the foreign player quota is full.
How much have City missed Vincent Kompany?
IC: Massively. Hugely. Even though when Pep was asked that, he seemed to almost deflected it away a little bit. I’m a huge Kompany fan, he didn’t play every game, far from it but what he did do was he played in the games towards the end of the season and he’s a massive personality, a leader, an organiser, and he knows the game backwards. He knows when to do the right thing at the right time.
CX: Vincent Kompany has been a huge miss for City not just because of how important he was for them on the field but also because of his role as captain off the field and not replacing him in the summer looks like it will be a costly error. When he played you felt both the players but also the fans felt a lot more relaxed and you wouldn’t worry about conceding anywhere near as much as you do currently or when he wasn’t playing. Kompany was so important to City winning the title and sadly lacking him or a character like him may be a fatal flaw.
Who would be your dream centre-back signing?
IC: I’d personally go for somebody who isn’t up-and-coming. I’d be looking for somebody who has been playing for seven or eight years, at the top level and has a body of experience behind them and somebody that shows that they can do what needs to be done. Like Ramos, Pique, Bonucci - not the right players because of their age but that type of old-fashioned centre-back.
CX: I think Virgil Van Djik would be any sides dream CB at the moment. The Dutchman has transformed Liverpool and you would think him alongside the likes of Laporte would be an almost invincible partnership.