Barring injury, Aymeric Laporte has been an almost guaranteed starter for Manchester City since he joined the club in January 2018.
After suffering a knee injury in September last season, the French defender missed six months and his loss could be compared to Liverpool losing the reassuring presence of Virgil van Dijk.
Without him, City conceded more goals than any other campaign since Pep Guardiola’s first in charge and failed to mount a sustained Premier League title challenge.
Failing to replace outgoing captain Vincent Kompany when he departed in the summer of 2019 left the City boss desperately short of cover.
With Nicolas Otamendi struggling for form and John Stones short of confidence, Eric Garcia was brought in from the academy and Fernandinho shifted back from defensive midfield, but City lost their rock-solid base.
Guardiola moved quickly to shore up his options in the last transfer window, bringing in Ruben Dias from Benfica and Nathan Ake from Bournemouth for a combined figure of £102m ($131m).
Their arrivals have upped the standard and City’s defence has kept eight clean sheets in 15 matches so far, including four consecutive blanks in the Champions League.
Such is the competition for places that Laporte has not been in the starting line-up for any of City’s last three matches and Guardiola’s side did not concede in any of them.
“The last two seasons we struggled a lot in this position, we didn’t have many players,” the City boss admitted. “Aymer was injured for most of the season, John was injured for part of the season, we didn’t have Nico, we used Eric who was a big surprise for us how well he did and Fernandinho.
“Now it’s a different situation and the guys who are in better condition and especially those who don’t make mistakes in this position they will have more chance to play. It’s simple as that. It’s no more complicated than that.”
The arrival of Dias has made a particular impact with the 23-year-old’s leadership and organisation skills contributing to the feeling that City have finally found the replacement for the influential Kompany.
Along with his emergence, Stones has rediscovered his best form and started consecutive matches in November for the first time in six months.
The England international had slipped down the pecking order but with Garcia refusing a contract extension amid interest from his boyhood club Barcelona , the 26-year-old has taken every opportunity in training and matches to impress and push his claim for regular inclusion. Guardiola says that starters will be chosen on merit.
Laporte’s last appearance was the 2-0 defeat to Tottenham when Jose Mourinho’s side scored from both of their only shots on target to punish City, who enjoyed two-thirds of the possession.
The opening came inside five minutes when the defence was at fault. Laporte was drawn to Harry Kane when he dropped short, which allowed Son Heung-min to run in behind to score.
With a hectic season played mostly behind closed doors, Guardiola says his team cannot afford to make errors and is pushing his players to hit the standards of their two dominant title-winning campaigns.
“Ruben, since he arrived, every training session his professionalism, commitment and he’s not making any mistakes and John has played really good in the games he’s played and Eric in the last game with Ruben, against Porto,” the City boss said.
“All the players know now there are players who play good and don’t play the next game. Now they know that having 19 or 20 players fit they have to raise their standards and play in as high a level as possible to keep in the selection. The guy who is playing good, I want them to continue to give them the chance to play. That’s the reason why.
“Aymeric continues to be really important for us, but right now I’m playing other guys. In the future, I’m pretty sure he’s going to play a lot of games.”
While Laporte has always been curiously overlooked by French national team boss Didier Deschamps and is still to win his first international cap, his position at the Etihad Stadium has always been settled since he joined in January 2018 from Athletic Bilbao for £57m ($74m).
Not least because City have been short of options to play on the left side of central defence and Guardiola described Laporte as the “best left-sided central defender in the world” as well as giving him a two-year contract extension just 13 months after signing him.
Ake was brought in to offer competition in that position and started his City career well until a hamstring injury while Dias has shown his versatility by taking the left-sided role in the victories over Olympiacos and Burnley.
Laporte has made the occasional blunder in the past, notably in Europe where he made two catastrophic errors in the Champions League exit to Spurs, and he was caught out in last season’s defeat to Lyon, although many thought he was fouled for the crucial second goal of the 3-1 defeat.
However, he has been City’s most consistent defender for the past two-and-a-half years. Now the increased competition means no one can take their starting place for granted.
Guardiola has warned his entire squad that anyone who thinks they are being rotated so they can be brought back in for the big games is making a big mistake.
“There is a misunderstanding about the word rotation,” he added. “Rotation looks like I’m a big star and now I don’t play this game because I’m going to play the next game and it’s important. This is a huge mistake for the players to have in their heads.
“Rotation is because I want everyone fit. Everyone ready when we need it and the best way is playing games.
“Against Porto, Bernardo Silva was exceptional, the best game he has played this season and the game before he didn’t play. Is it because I lose confidence in Bernardo? Absolutely not at all. You know my opinion of him. It’s just I want everyone to be involved and part of the team and everyone feel they have to be ready.”
After the disappointment of last season, every player is being challenged and Laporte will need to show the quality that has made him essentially an untouchable since he walked into Etihad Stadium.