Center-back shortage hands Guardiola new dilemma in defense
First it was having a quartet of aging full backs unable to deliver on his demands. Then it was going eight months without a genuine left back.
This season, there’s another defensive issue facing Pep Guardiola at Manchester City: a shortage of center backs.
With long-serving captain Vincent Kompany released in the offseason and Aymeric Laporte ruled out for the rest of 2019 because of a knee injury, City was already lacking numbers at center back when John Stones sustained a muscle injury in training this week and could be sidelined until November.
It has left Guardiola with one fit senior center back — Nicolas Otamendi, a player who looked on his way out of the club after barely featuring last season — just as the fixtures start piling up this season.
Guardiola’s response? Bring it on.
“It’s not a problem, it is a challenge,” he said Friday about City’s center-back crisis. “What’s important is being positive in your mind.”
Guardiola, therefore, is going to have to be bold and creative.
His first decision was to play defensive midfielder Fernandinho at the heart of the defense for the Champions League group match away to Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday. Making his first start of the campaign, Fernandinho — who has been playing as a defender in training this season — slotted in just fine and City kept a clean sheet, winning 3-0.
Expecting Fernandinho, 34, and Otamendi, 31, to play three games in a week-long span might be asking too much, so Guardiola will have other ideas.
Like, maybe, promoting Eric Garcia to the first team. The 18-year-old Spaniard was part of Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy as a kid and was signed by City in 2017, but has yet to play a Premier League match despite being in the senior squad all last season.
Or even Taylor Harwood-Bellis, a 17-year-old academy prospect who hasn’t played a senior match for City.
Kyle Walker, a right back, could even move into the center of defense in an emergency, having played on the right of a back three for England and City previously.
Whichever option Guardiola chooses, it’s hardly an ideal situation for a team that plans to go hard at every competition this season — just like the last one, when City won the domestic treble and reached the Champions League quarterfinals. City is also already five points behind Liverpool after five games of its Premier League title defense, which continues at home to Watford on Saturday.
“Football is not how you handle the good situations,” Guardiola said, “it’s how you handle the bad ones.”
The City coach joined the club in 2016 and reacted to being bequeathed four full backs all in their 30s, and unable to provide the attacking threat and positional play demanded by Guardiola, by spending more than $150 million on three new ones the following offseason.
In his second season in charge, Guardiola saw left back Benjamin Mendy seriously injure his knee in September and be ruled out for almost the whole season. His response was to deploy Fabian Delph, a center midfielder, as a left back and City managed to still rack up 100 points in winning the Premier League.
With Kompany departing, Guardiola wanted to sign Harry Maguire from Leicester but the fee demanded for the England center back was far too high — he ended up joining Manchester United for 80 million pounds ($97 million) — and City went into this season with just three central defenders.
Already that decision is proving unwise.
However, City’s purchase of Spain defensive midfielder Rodri does allow Guardiola to use Fernandinho solely as a defender, similar to when Javier Mascherano dropped into defense for Barcelona during Guardiola’s time as coach there.
Fernandinho has the intelligence, leadership and game management to perform as a defender, a position he has expected to play this season. He looked at home there against Shakhtar, sometimes pushing up into midfield with the ball, in a game in which he was made captain.
“Of course he has a lot of experience and personality,” Guardiola said of the Brazilian, “and what he says the people follow him in the locker room.”
A more intriguing option would be Garcia, who is likely to start in the English League Cup against second-tier Preston next week and should get his first start in the Premier League soon. He impressed in his three League Cup outings last season and looks to be a defender very much in the Guardiola mold, with his ball-playing ability making up for his lack of height.
Garcia, who lives at the City’s training complex, is highly regarded having played in all of Spain’s youth teams, most recently for the Under-21s.
City is fortunate that its schedule, while packed, is not too difficult. After Watford, City plays Preston, Everton, Dinamo Zagreb, Wolverhampton, Crystal Palace, Atalanta, Aston Villa, Southampton and then Atalanta again, before a trip to Anfield to play title rival Liverpool on Nov 10.
Stones could be back by then. But Fernandinho or Garcia might easily have made a strong case to stay in the team.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80