A stalwart of Manchester City’s back-line for a decade, Richard Dunne knows a thing or two about successful defences. And, despite being impressed with the overall impact made by manager Pep Guardiola, the former City skipper believes there is a lot of work to be done at the back before the team can reach the next level.
On Saturday City travel to Middlesbrough in the FA Cup quarter-finals, the best hope of silverware for the club with Chelsea ten points clear atop the Premier League and a maiden Champions League success still possible, albeit extremely unlikely.
And Dunne, who made over 350 appearances for the club, believes that Guardiola’s expansive, attacking philosophy has left the team vulnerable to being hit on the break this season.
“City’s defence has looked poor this season and the number of different defensive partnerships Guardiola has used this season won’t have helped,” Dunne tells The Independent. “It’s very difficult to build solid defensive partnerships and it is obviously something that takes a lot of time as you need to get into a routine and build trust.
“I think that one of the downsides of Guardiola’s philosophy is that the defensive side of things can become neglected. The full-backs are pushed so far forward at times that they are left completely isolated. Vincent Kompany would possibly be able to cope with that if he was fit, but at the moment City are left with someone needing to take control.
“It is great being able to play the ball out from the back, of course, but sometimes it takes somebody just sticking it down the other end of the pitch. We used to have a saying: If in doubt, stick it out.”
While Guardiola’s philosophy undoubtedly makes life harder for his defensive players, Dunne doesn’t believe the Spaniard’s tactical preferences are solely to blame for City’s woes at the back.
As he notes, in Guardiola’s four seasons at Barcelona and three at Bayern Munch, his side aways boasted the best defensive record in the league. Fast-forward to this campaign and City have only conceded one goal fewer than their FA Cup opponents this weekend, who sit 18th in the league. So is there another reason for City’s defensive problems?
“In the end you have to ask yourself, is it City’s players?” he adds. “Their defenders have struggled at times and the situation with Claudio Bravo hasn’t helped.
“In fact I can see Guardiola bringing Bravo back in for the FA Cup match because he really needs to regain some confidence so that he can finish the season strongly. He needs to build his relationship with City’s defenders because that has looked very poor and the defence hasn’t often looked like it has any confidence in him.
“He is a work in progress, as are the whole team at this point. Every match they go out looking like they could score 10 goals, but they also look like they could concede a lot, too. And it’s hard to know whether that is the fault of the players or something to do with the Guardiola philosophy.”
Dunne certainly thinks that City’s level of firepower will be enough to see off Middlesbrough in the FA Cup this weekend. When these two sides met early in the season in the Premier League, Middlesbrough somehow escaped with a 1-1 draw despite enjoying just 29% possession and having 20 shots on goal less than their opponents.
But he has backed his former club to rediscover their scoring touch after their disappointing midweek draw against Stoke, to compound Middlesbrough’s problems.
“I think it will be a similar game to the earlier Premier League match — with City having a lot of the ball and having a lot of chances — but I think City will get through it. Middlesbrough have bigger things to worry about and are preoccupied with their relegation battle, so everything seems to point towards a City win.
“Guardiola has also been putting out some really strong sides for the FA Cup so City will be at their best.”
Any hope of Manchester City overhauling Chelsea at the top of the Premier League table may have now faded, with City ten points behind Antonio Conte’s team with just eleven matches remaining, but the FA Cup still offers Guardiola a realistic shot at silverware in his first season in England.
Guardiola has never gone a season in his career without winning a trophy and won the treble in his first season at Barcelona, as well as the domestic double in his first year in the Bundesliga.
Nevertheless, winning the FA Cup and guaranteeing Champions League football for next season would still constitute a successful debut season at City, according to Dunne.
“For Guardiola to end the season with a Cup would be brilliant,” he says. “The style of play has really improved over the past month or two and I think that is a sign that his philosophy is really starting to be picked up by the players.
“The Premier League is so competitive, there are six very competitive teams which makes it a lot more difficult to win than other divisions in Europe. So the FA Cup would be a good return for Guardiola in his first season.”
Watch Middlesbrough v Manchester City live on BT Sport 2 on Saturday 11th March from 11:45pm.
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