Manchester City’s plan to resolve their defensive crisis hit a serious problem yesterday, as new signing Martin Demichelis was ruled out for six weeks with a knee injury.
Demichelis was signed last week from Atletico Madrid for £3.5million, quickly drafted in to fill an absence of leadership, experience, authority and simple numbers at the heart of the defence. But now the veteran Argentine international is injured, City are back in the same problem they were one week ago.
While City have exceptional depth in their midfield and striking options, after another summer of recruitment, they are still surprisingly vulnerable at centre-back. It only takes a few injuries to imbalance the team, and that is precisely what has happened, judging by City’s last two performances.
The problem at City – although it is a problem 19 other Premier League clubs would love to have – is how much they miss Vincent Kompany when he is not there. Kompany is the perfect captain, not just a brilliant defender – strong, fast, cool and technically perfect – but an authoritative leader and organiser. When Kompany is in the team, the team defends better.
This applies to City’s next two centre-backs: Matija Nastasic and Joleon Lescott. Nastasic is a remarkable talent, a 20-year-old with uncanny nous and game-reading abilities, who plays with a cool intelligence which makes him look at least 10 years older than he is.
Lescott is one of the great survivors at City. After last week’s departure of Gareth Barry to Everton, Lescott is the last player left who City bought in 2009, now entering his fifth season at the Etihad Stadium. He has only been unambiguous first-choice in one of those – 2011-12. He is experienced, solid and dependable, even if he lacks the natural gifts of Kompany or Nastasic.
When City won the title it was Kompany and Lescott at centre-back. Last season Roberto Mancini’s preference was for Kompany and Nastasic. They are both good partnerships – in both seasons City had the best defensive record in the Premier League.
The problem, though, is what happens when Kompany is not around to lead his partner. Neither Lescott nor Nastasic look half the player without him. And so City knew they were in trouble when, during their 4-0 defeat of Newcastle United, Kompany limped off with a groin injury, which will leave him out for six weeks.
The next game, City went to Cardiff City. They did not have Kompany while Nastasic, still recovering from an ankle injury sustained in Hong Kong, was only fit enough for the bench. So City had to pair Lescott with Javi Garcia, not even good enough in his preferred position of defensive midfield, never mind in defence. City lost 3-2, desperately lacking the organisation and authority that Kompany brings.
For the next game, against Hull City at home, Nastasic was brought in alongside Lescott. The young Serb did not look fully fit and his partnership with Lescott was faltering and uncertain. City conceded too many chances – Sone Aluko should have put Hull ahead in the first half – and with less luck they would have been punished.
It was a desire to draft in more experience and leadership that led to City’s move for Demichelis – the 32-year-old with four German titles, 37 Argentina caps – and successful spells under Manuel Pellegrini at both River Plate and Malaga beforehand – at the end of the transfer window.
He would have provided the guidance Nastasic and Lescott need, but now he is out until late October. But with Kompany out for the rest of September at the least, Nastasic and Lescott – with help from Garcia and maybe even Dedryck Boyata – will have to try to work it out between themselves.