Before Saturday’s game at Selhurst Park Pep Guardiola had successfully evaded earning himself the status as the Premier League’s newest tinker man. Prior to the Palace game, Guardiola has averaged 1.9 defensive changes as Manchester City manager, a rotation policy, often unwarranted, that is costing City clean sheets and defensive stability.
The experimenting has left City fans baffled as to who Guardiola deems to be his best four defenders, and where needs strengthening as a priority. How long Pep will persevere with Aleks Kolarov as a squad member remains unclear, but City fans’ patience has already worn thin enough, due to his lack of urgency, poor positioning and spell of own goals.
John Stones has come under fire for his performances in England colours recently, but the ball playing centre back is the least of City’s worries with Kolrov failing to provide competition to an increasingly reckless Nicolas Otamendi and an unreliable Vincent Kompany.
Whilst Otamendi might be worthy of his place alongside Stones in the squad, be it a consistent back four or countless changes City are the weakest they have ever been at the back during the Sheikh Mansour era. Most telling is City’s failure to keep a clean sheet in 11 games, leading to three consecutive home draws that, with respect to Everton, Southampton and Middlesbrough, with the personnel at City’s disposable, they should be sweeping aside. No side has ever won the Premier League after drawing three successive home games (although Manchester United drew three in row home and away four timesharing title winning seasons, including the year, they won the treble).
Failure to sign defensive reinforcements has left Guardiola relying on the front six scoring four if we happen to concede three. After being held by Boro, Gael Clichy’s comments said it all; “At 1-0 you are susceptible to a set-piece, penalty or any kind of mistake so I think we just need to learn how to kill the game when necessary.” It’s hard to disagree, but it’s still not good enough.
1-0, as dull as it can appear on paper, will always be better than 2-1, especially if teams create chances in the fashion City do. Guardiola has accelerated the way in which City play, and at times it has been football from another planet, but teams will adapt, play deeper and stifle Sergio Aguero, who has still managed 11 goals in 13 appearances so far this season, and is the most potent Premier League striker of all time. Whilst City have teams on the back foot, to suggest the defence always has a mistake in them and Aguero, Kelechi Iheanacho et al need to do more isn’t acceptable.
The mentality amongst the City defenders isn’t leaving too much to be desired, and whilst there is an apparent shift in Guardiola’s body language following a tough start to life in the Premier League, the knock on effect is clear to see. Nonchalantness, complacency and a lack of determination are evident amongst the majority of defenders and either goalkeeper leaves City exposed.
Accommodating Vincent Company in the way Guardiola did around the Manchester Derby was a clear case of nepotism for a player who should know his body better. Every Derby is a huge game, and isn’t the place to experiment with fitness.
Athletic Bilbao and Juventus, home clubs of two Guardiola targets Aymeric Laporte and Leonardo Bonnucci, have managed just five and six clean sheets respectively this season. Even if City still wished to reinforce with either of these two, Laporte only recently signed a new deal keeping him in the Basque country and Bonnucci would be cup tied in Europe, assuming City progress.
Between December and the New Year City will face three of the most free scoring teams in the division; Chelsea (whose last four games read at an aggregated 16-0), Arsenal (to which City have an almost identical record with Spurs having faced Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham already) and current title favourites Liverpool. Two of those are at home. If City are to mount a serious title challenge, Guardiola will need a strong run of performances during his first festive campaign and some serious reinforcements in the January transfer window.
Pablo Maffeo and Angelino are two shining lights for City’s future defence, and with frailties at the back, is too much of a gamble to blood the academy graduates in, or are City no worse off? No doubt Guardiola has a perfect eleven in his mind, but until such a team is assembled, his Premier League induction suggests some adaption is taken to ensure City don’t continue to leak costly, vital goals.