FootballPremier League

Manchester City’s struggling defence assessed: Who goes and who stays this summer?

March 9, 2020

THE remodeling of Manchester City’s defence this summer will be necessary, expansive and expensive. There is no sugarcoating that, just like there is no getting around the fact that the sheer scale of refurbishment needed is a direct consequence of several windows’ worth of compromise and fudging by the club’s decision-makers.

Those compromises were there for all to see at Old Trafford this weekend. The selection of Nicolas Otamendi exasperated as per. The absence of John Stones mystified. The unforced errors that led to a seventh league loss this term barely registered as a surprise. As has been evidenced all season long City’s back-line is not merely their Achilles heel: that is a term that doesn’t do the situation justice at all. It’s been their undoing.

How did it come to this? How did a squad so brilliant and formidable that it came damn close to completing football for two years’ running allow its foundations to decay dramatically in a relative blink of the eye? Across the last two imperious campaigns City conceded a goal every 137 minutes. This term that has tumbled to 81 minutes and it can be reasonably argued that they have the least stable, most arbitrary rearguard of any team presently inhabiting the top six.

We know how it came to this of course and we know because it’s been comprehensively documented as the Blues’ defensive shortcomings have increasingly defined their season. The failure or refusal – take your pick – to look past the exorbitantly priced Harry Maguire as a replacement for Vincent Kompany still infuriates many months on. The long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte was substantial and easily the equivalent of Liverpool losing Virgil Van Dijk.

City’s left-back saga meanwhile, that began all the way back in September 2017 when new signing Benjamin Mendy crumpled in agony on the Etihad lawn, was allowed to run on and on with first Fabian Delph, then Oleksandr Zinchenko acting as sticking plasters on a phantom limb. It was a messy state of affairs made all the messier with the arrival of Angelino last summer who has already moved on but who cares right? After all, it’s only one of the most integral roles for any Guardiola creation.

Elsewhere, further blame can be sourced from a reluctance to spend as City endeavoured in vain to appease UEFA regulators who screwed them over regardless. There has been misplaced loyalty repeatedly wasted on certain individuals. Perhaps too there has been a good slice of arrogance, exemplified in the belief they could make do and cobble together and still reign supreme. That fallacy is now surely acknowledged and surely too City’s deficiencies cannot continue. They cannot and won’t.

So perhaps more intrigue lies not in the diagnosis but the cure and unquestionably the best tonic to start with would be the departure of Claudio Bravo this summer superseded by a top class, reliable back-up keeper who doesn’t cause palpitations among a fan-base when his name appears on the team-sheet. At right-back Joao Cancelo’s future remains uncertain though that is largely down to the player’s discontent at playing second fiddle to Kyle Walker and with so much upheaval anticipated in other areas the club will do everything possible to persuade him to stay.

This would be a satisfactory outcome for all concerned even if both players – for different reasons – are prone to inconsistency. Frankly, in an ideal world an upgrade on the Portuguese full-back would be welcomed but City’s defence right now is anything but an ideal world: it’s a dystopia and there are too many fires to put out elsewhere.

Across the park the progress made by Mendy has been greatly encouraging but fitness issues still concern and this leaves his principal stand-in Zinchenko in a precarious predicament. The Ukrainian’s adaptation to a foreign role has been Herculean and highly commendable, and for what it’s worth too he is a popular figure among the fans.

Yet his notable lack of pace is not going to change anytime soon while his habit of nullifying a carefully orchestrated move that has granted him space out wide by playing it cautiously backwards annoys as much as it baffles from a natural winger. Sign a new left-back please City and what is really meant here is will you finally, for the love of God and all that is holy secure a specialist, top quality, forward-thinking left-back, pretty please with a cherry on top.

Turning our attentions with a heavy heart to the centre-backs, a fit and consistently available partnership of Fernandinho and Laporte next season excites and especially with the emerging talent of Eric Garcia stepping up when necessary. Yet as has already been painfully observed and empirically experienced it is a fool’s errand to rely on fitness and this brings us fittingly to John Stones; a shadow of a Premier League player who once threatened to be a colossus.

Plagued by injuries the 25-year-old has been ready for action in only 48% of Guardiola’s 220 games in charge and for the other 52% his actions have too often let him down. With transfer rumours growing in substance every week his time in Manchester is up. This leaves us with Otamendi: the drunken uncle at an elegant Tuscan wedding. The highly strung Argentine has started 53% of City’s league games this season and started 71% of their defeats. You do the math.

Blues have long grown sick and tired of witnessing his maniacal approach to one-on-ones where he is Kato and the opponent is Peter Sellers entering a hotel room and the notion that he is picked over Garcia due to his experience perplexes given his callow, erratic idiocy. It’s like seeking out Piers Morgan’s opinion on climate change over Greta Thunberg simply because the former is several decades older. If Otamendi is not gone by next August then nothing makes sense anymore.

A conservative estimation then puts it at four new signings required in a solitary window; an onerous ask when it’s considered that Champions League may be deprived them and with the constraints of FFP still pertinent. Make no mistake about it though this has been a long time coming. And be similarly without doubt that this is a problem entirely of City’s own doing.