City’s foundations: is Guardiola’s defence up to scratch?

Manchester City’s 3-2 defeat to Norwich City at Carrow Road was a classic Premier League upset. The sky-blue behemoth, after retaining the league and adding a further two domestic cups in 2018/19, fell to the plucky, injury-hit Canaries.

Goals from Kenny McLean and Teemu Pukki, both signed on the cheap, and academy graduate Todd Cantwell overcame a team instructed by one of football’s greatest minds and backed by Middle Eastern riches. The matchup of the two clubs cogently shows the great inequality that exists between Premier League teams: Pep Guardiola has guided several of Europe’s elite clubs, while Daniel Farke was recruited after leading Borussia Dortmund’s reserve side for two seasons.

Manchester City’s starting eleven cost £400 million more than Norwich’s. City’s bench included Kevin De Bruyne, one of the world’s finest midfield architects, while the home side named two goalkeepers among their substitutes, with eight first-team players sidelined by injury. Nevertheless, this sizeable upset proves that Premier League football remains romantic, worthwhile and fundamentally fun in the age of TV money, social media and VAR.

Looking beyond the festivities in Norfolk, this result reveals serious defensive fragility in the blue half of Manchester. The adage that strikers win games but defenders win championships appears relevant in this year’s Premier League, which seems destined to be another two-horse race between the Citizens and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who have a perfect record from their first six games.

Both sides undeniably contain match-winning, world-class forward players, but the frustratingly needless injury to Aymeric Laporte in an otherwise routine win against Brighton recently has undermined Manchester City’s defensive foundation.

By contrast, Liverpool have a potentially title-winning defence, spearheaded by the tremendous Virgil Van Dijk.

The potential of a world-class central defender to command a backline and raise the performances of other players is unquestionable, and Van Dijk’s arrival at Liverpool prompted swift improvement in his defensive team-mates. Laporte has had a similar impact at City following his move last year, allowing Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones to evolve their game as the club have created a title-winning defence to support a scintillating frontline.

However, Laporte’s absence at Carrow Road led to an implosion. Otamendi and Stones looked a chaotic partnership at the back, Norwich’s three goals exposing their poor marking, positional inadequacy and laughable attempts at playing it out from the back.

City resumed business as usually in their demolition of a struggling Watford side whilst boasting only one recognised centre half in the talented but reckless Otamendi. Fernandinho dropped from midfield into the backline to accompany him in light of Stones’s injury, ruling him out for at least a month. The great Premier League sides have all included great defenders – Terry, Vidic, Ferdinand, Adams – but this Manchester City side is built on sand.

Perhaps such judgement is premature. City’s defeat was embarrassing, but this Norwich side is exciting, punchy and dangerous. Pukki has been a revelation up front, and they have impressed against several big teams in recent weeks. The Citizens lost to lowly Crystal Palace and Newcastle United last season and still retained their crown.

Regardless, a five-point gap at this stage in the season appears tricky for Aguero and co. to recover without the auxiliary support of a granite defence – something Liverpool have obtained but City have lost.

 

Image: Terry Kearney via Flickr

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