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Manchester City

How Laporte became Guardiola's untouchable, and perhaps the Premier League's best centre-back

08:00 GMT 29/10/2018
Aymeric Laporte Manchester City 2018-19
The manager has chopped and changed his Manchester City line-up in a bid to evolve his side, yet the Frenchman has been an ever-present

Aymeric Laporte fired his team to victory twice last Tuesday. At the Metalist Stadium he headed in Manchester City's second goal against Shakhtar Donetsk, setting them well on their way to top spot in their Champions League group.

And earlier that afternoon, in his room at a five-star Kharkiv golf resort, he emerged victorious from a frantic round of Fortnite. The wildly popular battle royale game has penetrated the City dressing room, to the extent that thousands of gamers across the world will have unwittingly found themselves trying to out-gun a battle-hardened trio of City first-teamers in the past few months; Nicolas Otamendi and Brahim Diaz regularly fill up Laporte's three-man squads.

Portable PlayStations are a regular sight on City away trips but fans need not worry about a lack of focus, and least of all from Laporte, who has quickly earmarked himself as one of Pep Guardiola's most trusted and important players.

The 24-year-old, signed for a then-club-record £57 million ($73m) in January, is rotation-proof; Guardiola has chopped and changed his systems and starting XIs all season, yet the Frenchman is the only City outfield player to have played every minute in the Premier League, and one of three to have completed all three Champions League games.

Laporte, just like everybody else, has competition for his place. City have four fine centre-backs, each of whom has a skill-set that lends them to a particular game. Aerial bombardment away from home? Vincent Kompany's your man. A deep-lying defence that needs unpicking? Send for John Stones. A mixture of both? That'll be Nicolas Otamendi.

But Laporte is the man for all occasions. Why?

"First of all, his level," Guardiola said at his Friday press conference. "Today, for example, in the training session he was so focused. Every action was there. I am seeing the same with Vincent, John and Nico."

Laporte, who lives in the city centre, has fully committed himself to making the grade in England, perhaps most notably when it comes to his diet. All of the City players eat well, given the expertise on offer at the training ground kitchen - hailed as 'the bet restaurant in Manchester' in a recent book - and every player takes food home with them, but Laporte is said to take a special interest in what he eats, not just eating what he is given but trying to understand why he is given it, and how and why it is prepared.

Yet as Guardiola says, the other centre-backs are just as committed, and have proven just as reliable on the pitch in the past 18 months. The key is that Laporte offers something different, a new dimension to City's game.

"But especially because he is left-footed playing on the left side," Guardiola added. "He gives us an alternative for the build-up, quicker and faster than the other ones who are right-footed. When you receive to go to the right, you have to go inside, because you want to go to the right foot. In the left, you go to that side, so it helps us to create this build-up [to the left, and to the right with a diagonal pass]. With the right foot, it is a little bit more complicated. That would be, with the ball, one of the reasons why.

"We can adapt it but we can play a movement, like the full-back drops a little bit, he can play a bit more in the middle and change it," Guardiola adds, with his way of explaining tactical concepts that probably only his assistant, Mikel Arteta, fully grasps first time around.

There are also old-fashioned elements of defending, of course.

"It is not just the left, his attention defensively, winning duels, that is why," Guardiola says. "At the end I can move the squad but when one player plays good, good and good, it gives me confidence so I give you another opportunity. It is not complicated."

Laporte's run in the team has also been boosted by his increasingly baffling omission from the France team; he can rest during international breaks and indeed in September he spent his time off in a villa in Mykonos with Brahim and Sergio Aguero, who paid for the trip.

Guardiola insists Laporte will need a rest later in the season, when those international breaks dry up, but for now there would be little sense in taking him out of a team that is actually defending better than even last season.  

Laporte has had the second most touches (746), has played the second most passes (824) and the second most successful passes (768) in the entire Premier League, behind only Jorginho, the would-be City player who is establishing Maurizio Sarri's playing style at Chelsea.

According to Statsbomb , Laporte is also in the top 20 in the Premier League for 'deep progressions' - passes, dribbles and carries into the opposition final third per 90 minutes. His raking passes from central defence to the right of midfield certainly contribute to that.

Those actions mean City have relatively little traditional defending to do, which is why he is nowhere near the top of the rankings for aerial duels, clearances and tackles. But that's absolutely fine for the English champions. "What I say is that you might look at the five goals and say, 'How good is the attack'? It's a mistake, it's the team who build it up from the back," Vincent Kompany said last weekend. "If you look at the fact we didn't concede [against Burnley] and say 'how good is the defence?' that's a mistake too."

On several occasions this season Guardiola has hailed his side's ability to restrict their opponents to very few shots on target, something he puts down to City's positional game - their way of controlling the opposition via their own organisation on the pitch, via their constant passing and, when needed, intelligent pressing.

Statsbomb highlight that while City are allowing 6.44 shots per game, which is up from 6.37 last season, their expected goals conceded are down from 0.66 to 0.51. City's opponents may be having more shots this season, but they appear to be more speculative and of less quality than last season, when City only conceded 27 goals anyway, the best record in the league.

It would be wrong to attribute City's improvement to Laporte alone, just as Guardiola and Kompany would not attribute it to 'the defence' as a unit, but the Frenchman's continued presence in an ever-changing team and what he brings to it - the quick passes, the raking passes, the sheer amount of touches - show that he is an integral part of what is an evolving side.

And to think he could have quite easily not joined City at all. After snubbing them in 2016 his name was scorched from a list of targets in the summer of 2017, and it was only after Southampton priced up Virgil van Dijk at £75m ($96m) that the Blues reconsidered their stance and made contact with Laporte ahead of his eventual January move.

Since then he and Van Dijk have been key figures in City and Liverpool's defensive improvements. It is hard to say has been the better of the two, but you won't find anybody at City willing to swap their Mr Reliable.