There are not many £57m centre-backs still waiting for a first international cap but then Aymeric Laporte’s is not a normal story.
Born and brought up in Agen, halfway between Bordeaux and Toulouse, Laporte was never at a major centre de formation in France as a boy, and easily could have ended up playing rugby. He was almost unknown in the game when he left for Bilbao at the age of 16, signing for Club Athletic because of his Basque ancestry.
Now, at the age of 24, Laporte has never played a game in Ligue 1 and probably never will. He has never played a senior international, and while Spain have tried to recruit him he has said he wants to play for the country of his birth. And yet he returns to France this week with a legitimate claim to be one of the best in the world in his position.
Laporte gave the press conference at the Groupama Stadium in Lyon and shrugged off one question about his international future. But it is tempting to imagine what a partnership he would make with Raphael Varane for Didier Deschamps’ side, given the pairing he has now made with John Stones for Manchester City. Especially because, in any assessment of how City have continued to improve from last year to this one, Laporte is the most important factor.
Everyone wondering how City could possibly improve on 100 points and 106 goals need only look at their underlying defensive numbers. There has not been a Premier League team harder to attack in the last 12 years than this City side. Last year, City conceded just 2.32 shots on target per game, the second best rate since Opta started recording this in 2006-07. The best ever was Rafa Benitez’s watertight Liverpool side the following season, who were so well drilled they allowed just 2.29 shots on target per game.
But this year City have taken defensive impermeability to a new level. This season they have conceded just 1.92 shots on target per game, the lowest number on record and a 16 per cent improvement on the previous best. In their 13 league games they have conceded just five goals, and their last two, against Southampton and Manchester United, were both from out-of-the-blue penalties after Ederson made the same mistake.
So how have City managed to tighten up even further this year, to turn their defence from good to great? Just look at Laporte. Last season he only arrived from Bilbao in January and was gradually integrated into the team as he got up to speed with the complexities of Guardiola’s game and the physical speed of English football. “We go day by day, that is exactly what we are doing, to learn every day to make sure I have Pep’s confidence,” Laporte said. “It is a day-after-day thing, to make sure we are getting to our objectives.”
This summer Guardiola decided that Laporte was now first choice and he has never looked back. He has started all 13 league games, as many as he started last season, all four Champions League games. The only two he has sat out have been in the Carabao Cup. Draw up a list of City’s most-used players this season and Laporte is tied with Fernandinho right at the very top.
Watch City playing this season and you immediately realise why Laporte has made such a difference. Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi have their strengths, and for a more conventional manager they would stand out with their old-school values, getting their heads on everything, never letting strikers forget that they are in for a difficult afternoon.
But Laporte offers something different. The ability to interpret and execute Guardiola’s orders on the pitch. His pace means that City can defend even higher, pressing even harder, tightening their hold on the opposition throughout the game. His technical ability means City can keep the ball better, build up the play smarter, and he can fire forward passes through the opposition lines into space.
At times Laporte looks like a mirror image of John Stones, playing the same game 15 yards to his right. They are a perfect combination not because they are complimentary, but because they are so similar. They both push up, they both want the ball, they both take risks, and they are both sharp enough to defend one against one on the break. Two years ago City always used to get countered down the sides, because Kompany and Otamendi struggled to cover. Now it almost never happens.
It is classic Guardiola, rejecting the premise that any pairing requires one old-fashioned centre-back who can put his foot through the ball. Because why play one ball-player at the back when you can play two?
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