To be biased is to be human. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, we form opinions beginning from our preferences and then argue to reach a conclusion. However, when we try to think objectively is when we can see the true picture and call a spade what it is. This is what must be done to Manchester City and Pep Guardiola. The amount of criticism levelled at José Mourinho has been fair. After all, Manchester United have spent big and not shown proportional results. Arsène Wenger has faltered more than he should in various ways. The criticism has been fair. Pep Guardiola shouldn’t be excused. It’s true that he’s just taken hold of what is the second oldest squad in the Premier league (at 28.6 years just lower than Crystal Palace). There were glaring problems at the base of the team, from goalkeeper to defenders. Even there his choices have been questionable.
If we were to personify the Man City strengths and weaknesses into a human form it would look very much like a bodybuilder who spent all his time working on his upper body. The further back you go the thinner it gets. Man. City has no legs.
Defenders at Guardiola’s disposal are 30-yr-old Vincent Kompany (if we relax the definition of ‘available’ considerably), Nicolás Otamendi (28), and the heavily built up John Stones (22). Flop Eliaquim Mangala for the price of £32 million has been sent on loan to Valencia while young Belgian Jason Denayer is on loan to Sunderland. How a team with the resources at Man City’s disposal could neglect it’s defense this badly is baffling.
It gets worse.
The fullback complement is Pablo Zabaleta (31), Bacary Sagna (33), Aleksandar Kolarov (31), and Gaël Clichy (31). This is clearly not an overnight problem. However, beginning the season with what is, in actuality, two central defenders that can be expected to be fit and four ageing, declining fullbacks in a league where speedy fullbacks are worth their weight in gold was a massive blunder. For all his hype and promise, Stones is very rough around the edges and is very much far from being the diamond he can be. He holds the unenviable record of having made the most defensive errors leading to a goal (6) since last season, three of which have already come this season. That is unacceptable for a team at Man. City’s level with their aspirations.
Even though we must acknowledge and reprimand the kid for his errors, he is only 22 years old. He didn’t ask for his clearly inflated transfer fee but we must approach analysis of football in the right way again. Having qualities such as the ability to string passes from defense or even the goalkeeper position is admirable and a good skill to have but just as it is the primary – not only – role of a striker to score goals and it is the role of a playmaker to create chances or a midfielder to instigate attacks and wrestle control of possession, the primary role of a defender is to defend. Everything else is secondary. The first thing that should be used to evaluate a defender is his ability to defend. Then the other attributes are used to separate the good from the great ones. John Stones needs to learn how to be a defender and cut out his mistakes. Only then will City mine the diamond.
The club have bought potential or hype at centre back in the recent past and have largely come out losing. Stefan Savić, Matija Nastasić and Mangala readily come to mind. The odds don’t favour Stones but his talent suggests he’s a sleeper awaiting to be awakened.
The rest haven’t acquitted themselves much better either. Save for a few good runs, Otamendi hasn’t quite lived up to what Man. City wanted when they bought him. This has been exacerbated by the absence of the best defender and team leader in Kompany. At his best, he is one of the best in the league, and even then, he has made what are game-changing mistakes at the most inopportune times. Defensive errors are part of the trade but timing and frequency are key.
The defensive weakness extends to the ageing fullbacks. All very good in their prime, the time is nigh and arguably overdue for them to be phased out. Against Leicester City, Kolarov a suspect defender on the wing even at his best, was left as part of a three-man defense (in theory) alongside Stones and Zabaleta. Since Kolarov is often a winger (and fine attacker) masquerading as a fullback who masqueraded as a centre back yesterday, Stones was given an almost impossible task.
“I hear a lot of times about the intensity in the Premier League when none of you have been in La Liga or the Bundesliga to know how intense it is,” Pep Guardiola (October 16, 2016).
“Here the problem is maybe there are more games, but the way they play in Germany for example is amazing.”
Now, these are carry-ons from Manuel Pellegrini and have been only made worse by the failure to strengthen in the last window. Maybe he believed he was going to dominate possession in a ‘weak league’ so much that it wouldn’t matter. Maybe he believed he could hold on for a season and still be fine. Think again.
History doesn’t favour Man. City
The season is not lost by any means although they will be seven points adrift of Chelsea beginning next game-week. January represents an opportunity to retool using the vast resources at their disposal. Odds must be very high that at least one and likely two defensive additions are made.
Just over the last 10 years, the highest amount of goals conceded by a champion was Man. United’s 43 in the 2012/13 season. Liverpool learned the hard way when conceding 50 in their near miss of 2013/14. Man. City are on course to concede 48 goals. Two clean sheets in 15 league games must be a considerable worry for Guardiola despite his delusional sounding comments about how great his defenders and goalkeeper were, right after some embarrassing performances. Claudio Bravo hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory either but that alone deserves far too many words for here and now. It all points to either an overconfidence, a naivety, wrongly being coy in the media, or some combination of all. His media comments go in the opposite direction of Mourinho too. His tendency to give ridiculous praises to his players after bad performances of late are strange and entertaining. Maybe he could do what the longest lasting managers, Sir Alex Ferguson and Wenger, in this league have done for the most part, give fair credit and when there’s time for criticism to be levelled, say “I didn’t see it” in public.
Pep undoubtedly deserves time to construct his team but his initiation has been far from perfect. If he doesn’t learn the rigours of this league quickly will take their toll. It did with Mourinho and despite what his many (earned) admirers think, he is only human. He is not immune.