Injuries have certainly played their part in Manuel Pellegrini's defensive headaches this season, but despite those, and often sparse midfield cover, a new stopper is much-needed
By Sam Lee
It has been a tale of two Cities so far this season. At home, Manuel Pellegrini's men are almost impregnable, but on the road it is another story.
But trying to identify Manchester City's weakness is like Yaya Toure tracking his midfield runners. It seems pointless when you can focus on all the goals.
It's true, City have blown teams away at the Etihad Stadium this season, thanks in no small part to Toure, Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo and their other quick-witted attackers. It has rarely been a bed of roses on the road, however: they have conceded just six goals at home, but 17 away.
Toure was highlighted as a 'liability' by former City midfielder Dietmar Hamann on Match of the Day following the 3-2 win at Swansea on January 1, but it was an afternoon where Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasic did not help themselves, either.
On one of the occasions highlighted by Hamann, whose disciplined midfield performance helped Liverpool win the Champions League in 2005, the Ivorian midfielder allowed Roland Lamah to drift past him. But neither did Fernandinho track Jonathan De Guzman, who raced into the space vacated by Kompany, who had strangely opted to follow Wilfried Bony about 15 yards from his defensive position and then failed to win the ball.
Results with Kompany-Nastasic
|Sep 17||Plzen 0-3 Man City|
||Man City 4-1 Man Utd
||Aston Villa 3-2 Man City
|Oct 2||Man City 1-3 Bayern|
||Man City 1-0 Crystal Palace|
||Swansea 2-3 Man City
It was only the second time City's first-choice pairing had played together since September 28, when Aston Villa won 3-2 and neither covered themselves in glory - in front of a shaky Joe Hart.
Indeed, the first half of City's season - apart from the attacking brilliance - has been characterised by chopping and changing at the back. Manager Manuel Pellegrini has used eight different central defensive partnerships in the league alone, and used five different match-ups in the first five games. Chelsea have used two partnerships in the league all season: Gary Cahill and John Terry, or David Luiz and John Terry. Terry has played every game. Arsenal have utilised five differing pairings, though Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have played 15 of 20 matches together.
Add in the Hart/Costel Pantilimon dilemma and the consistent switching of left-backs and it is easy to see why nobody in the defence, aside from the ever-present Pablo Zabaleta, has been surefooted.
Pellegrini has been unlucky in that regard. Nastasic and Kompany have both picked up injuries at various points, while the stop-gap signing Martin Demichelis was ruled out for six weeks with a knee problem almost as soon as he signed his contract. It meant Javi Garcia and Joleon Lescott paired up for the club's second league match, the defeat at Cardiff City. The City board do not expect either of those men to be at the Etihad next season.
Demichelis was very much a back-up signing but has been given a lot more exposure than expected, and has actually played in more consecutive league games, nine, than any of the club's other centre-backs. He came into the line-up at Chelsea in October, a game which ended with another mix-up between Nastasic and Hart, and played every minute up to and including a somewhat calamitous performance at Fulham, where Kompany scored an inexplicable own goal in a 4-2 win.
Pellegrini has complete trust in the Argentine defender, and believes his reading of the game makes up for his lack of pace. He has, however, been caught out thanks to the mistakes of others - an out-of-position Gael Clichy slipped at Fulham to leave him and Kompany exposed on the counterattack - and he was outmuscled far too easily as Victor Anichebe scored for West Brom at the start of December. He does have a tendency to stray too far up the pitch at times, too, and was called back by Kompany more than once when the two first played together at the Hawthorns.
City, mindful of the need to strengthen their defence, have identified three defensive targets, and all of them are comfortable on the ball. Indeed, any new arrival would be expected to take ball-carrying duties off Kompany, who club coaches believe can lose possession cheaply under pressure. During the match against West Brom, for example, the returning captain played a panicked pass that was intercepted and played over the top of Demichelis, again too far up the pitch, and led to a penalty appeal for the Baggies as Aleksandar Kolarov tried to cover after Kompany had missed with a rash slide tackle.
|HOME & AWAY
|YAYA TOURE'S DIFFERING PL STATS
While Toure may have been criticised following that win at Swansea, the numbers suggest he actually does more defensive work on the road than at the Etihad. His average tackles increase from 1.3 per game at home to 1.6 away, and his interceptions rise from 0.7 per game to 1. The numbers of his midfield contemporaries - Ramires, Fernandinho, Lucas and Mikel Arteta - all drop when they are away compared to at home.
What the stats don't show - the failure to track midfield runners - is that while he may not be fulfilling all of his responsibilities, his extra work away from home does show that Pellegrini is aware that the Ivorian has to do more to help his defenders.
At Eastlands, Fernandinho is normally enough cover while Toure, David Silva, Jesus Navas, Aguero and Negredo set about breaking down the deep defences. City's away games show that they cannot cope defensively when teams go at them, but at least they have the firepower to simply outscore the opposition.
Seeing as there are currently no plans to recruit a new midfielder, certainly not one to replace Toure, who has 10 Premier League goals, a new defender and a settled unit is what is required for the second half of the season.
Mangala, 22, and Zouma, 19, are hardly seasoned veterans but they have been comprehensively scouted and identified because of their composure on the ball, overall potential and, if necessary, resale value. Otamendi, while more adventurous and inevitably more erratic in his passing, is a long-term favourite of Pellegrini and would offer a more physical presence in the backline, not to mention the experience of playing at the 2010 World Cup.
Partnering Kompany with somebody capable of bringing the ball out of the back would allow the captain to focus on organising those around him, while the new man's added composure will bring obvious benefits, especially on the road.
So while City continue to indulge Toure it is clear Pellegrini needs a new defender to help him deliver the Premier League title in his first season in charge.