The news could hardly come at a more inconvenient time for City, who now play six games in nineteen days before the next international break.
After not signing a replacement for Vincent Kompany in the summer, City’s decision to go light at the back had been previously criticised by the media for exactly this reason.
City came into the season with only three recognised centre-backs, but with Aymeric Laporte and now John Stones out injured, Nicholas Otamendi is their only remaining option. Otamendi was far from convincing in his last Premier League outing for City, giving the ball away multiple times in the 3-2 defeat to Norwich, including gifting the Canaries their third goal.
Pep Guardiola’s managerial prowess will be sorely tested in this busy period, and we’ve outlined a few ways he may employ to solve his defensive headache.
1. Shift back Fernandinho
This option seems the most likely for Guardiola. Fernandinho has been a loyal servant to City as a defensive midfielder, but featured as an auxiliary centre-back at times last season. The Brazilian’s appetite for defending would serve him well in the defensive line, and he is more than capable of distributing the ball as Guardiola likes his centre-backs to do.
However, Fernandinho is only 5’9, and would make City extremely vulnerable in the air alongside Otamendi who himself is only 6’0. Now 33 and not exactly blessed with pace, the ex-Shakhtar man could also be a target if City play a high defensive line.
2. Shift back Rodri
New-signing Rodri was brought in from Atletico Madrid with a view to replacing Fernandinho in the long-term, but he may be another candidate to play alongside Otamendi in City’s defence.
The Spaniard has all the key attributes required on paper – he tackles well, he is strong in the air, he is comfortable on the ball – but at the age of 23 perhaps lacks the game intelligence that a centre-back under Guardiola should have. At 6’3, Rodri also arguably lacks the pace required to play a high line, but does have strength on his side.
3. Promote from within
Eric Garcia is a name most likely only known to ardent football fans, but Guardiola has stated he has now been forced into the first team picture. The 18-year-old is a natural centre-back, but has only made three appearances for City, all in the EFL Cup last season. Despite not yet making his league debut, he was called up to the Spanish U21 set up in the latest international break and earned his cap at that level, highlighting the stature that the former Barcelona youth prospect already has in his homeland.
Taylor Harwood-Bellis is another name that Guardiola has confirmed will be in contention, but the 17-year-old has even less experience than his Spanish counterpart, having only featured for City’s youth teams.
It would be a big risk for Guardiola to call upon an untested teenager, but Garcia and Harwood-Bellis are City’s natural second and third choice centre-backs by default.
4. Move Kyle Walker
Walker was sensational on the right side of England’s back three as they reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2018, and there have been murmurs of using him there again since the start of last season.
He has been City’s first-choice right-back since he moved from Spurs in 2017, and whilst he has the pace to play at the back, he is another who potentially does not read the game well enough to function as Guardiola would like.
5. A tactical eyebrow-raiser
Guardiola is a tactical genius. It is a fact that he has had a huge influence on football since turning to management after a successful playing career. He gets the best out of players and often takes their game to a new level (see Raheem Sterling), but is known for springing surprise team selections.
If he felt it was appropriate, Guardiola could line up with a back three, flanked by wing-backs with central midfielders in front of them. Such a three would likely have Oleksandr Zinchenko on the left, with either Otamendi in the middle and Walker on the right, or Fernandinho/Rodri in the middle with Otamendi on the right. New signing Joao Cancelo and fit again Benjamin Mendy would operate as the wide players in this system.
It would be bold, for sure, but Guardiola has made a name for himself by being bold, and as City are expected to dominate most games anyway, can probably get away with such an unorthodox set-up.
Bonus: Mystery Free Agent
City could move for a free agent on a short-term deal to plug their defensive hole, as you might do on Football Manager. However, having had a trawl through the list of available centre-backs, it seems pretty safe to say that Younes Kaboul and Chris Samba shouldn’t wait by the phone for a call from Guardiola...
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