Manchester City’s makeshift centre-back pairing gives Pep Guardiola tactical challenge after Everton win
- Pep Guardiola must resolve Manchester City’s growing defensive problems
- Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho looked weak in the 3-1 victory over Everton
- City return to Merseyside to take on Liverpool at Anfield on November 10
- The form of Raheem Sterling highlights Guardiola’s work on the training ground
The result would have been more than enough in the days when Manchester City were run by a tycoon who made his money renting out televisions and once phoned the club secretary at midnight to find out why he had changed Maine Road’s black bin bag supplier.
But Peter Swales belongs to a distant universe, of course, and the club are operating in a title contest of incomparably tight margins in which every weakness is an opportunity for the team who are setting the early pace.
The ghostly hulk of the Anfield stadium, just about visible from the coaches which left Goodison Park on Saturday, was a spectral reminder that this defence of Pep Guardiola’s will not do. The champions will be there 41 days from now and if this game is any barometer, the going across Stanley Park will be terribly tough.
Pep Guardiola has a lot of work to do before Manchester City return to Liverpool in November
Guardiola said after facing Shakhtar Donetsk 12 days ago that a makeshift central defence comprising a 34-year-old converted midfielder, Fernandinho, alongside a 31-year-old Nicolas Otamendi might be unsustainable. ‘For three or four months I don’t know what will happen,’ he said.
This match — City’s first serious test since John Stones followed Aymeric Laporte on to the list of central defensive casualties — demonstrated why.
Guardiola hopes that Stones will be fit to play the other side of the international break, though it will need to be some contribution if City are to get beyond the assumption that their galaxy of attacking talents will see them home. There were good reasons why Everton managed eight shots on target — the most that any side have managed in a Premier League match against City under Guardiola.
Centre-back pairing Nicolas Otamendi and Fernandinho looked frail at Goodison Park
The Everton equaliser was the worst of it: a series of errors starting with Fernandinho passing directly to Alex Iwobi in City’s penalty area, attempting to amend with a tackle which found no contact on the ball, and concluding with Otamendi colliding with Ederson as Seamus Coleman clipped the goal-bound ball which Dominic Calvert-Lewin saw over the line.
But there was more. Otamendi’s taking out of Calvert-Lewin on the edge of City’s area after Morgan Schneiderlin and the influential Gylfi Sigurdsson had burgled possession from Ilkay Gundogan. Oleksandr Zinchenko clattering Richarlison in similar territory.
There was a desperation about City’s defending. Everton had an aerial superiority, too. Fernandinho is 5ft 9in, six inches shorter than Laporte.
It is testament to City’s central defensive blind spot in the Abu Dhabi years that Otamendi is still anywhere near the team. Eliaquim Mangala, Martin Demichelis, Stefan Savic: the club have simply not spent well in this position, though Vincent Kompany always compensated with his self-assurance, security and elegant strides out of defence to link with midfield.
Guardiola referred to Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s goal as ‘one of the best headers I’ve seen’
This defence struggled to make such a link. Fernandinho settled for long diagonals from deep. No one provided the effortless connectivity that David Silva, a late substitute, still brings.
There were certainly compensations for Guardiola. Raheem Sterling’s brutally struck 100th club goal to wrap things up, cementing his emergence as a supreme goal-scorer under the manager’s tutelage. Riyad Mahrez glittered — breezing beyond Lucas Digne to institute the first goal, arcing the second into Everton’s net.
But Guardiola’s description of City as ‘absolutely outstanding’ seemed as extravagant as his suggestion that Calvert-Lewin was ‘one of best headers I’ve seen, jumping and flicking the ball’. It took the best of Ederson to help his team-mates off the rocks.
For Everton, it felt something more reminiscent of the old ways. Michael Keane recovered from the misjudgement which allowed Gabriel Jesus his opener to provide leadership at the back. The 50-yard sorties by Coleman, Everton’s heartbeat, were a delight.
Converting Raheem Sterling into a lethal finisher has been one of Guardiola’s success stories
But Jordan Pickford had his moments and should have reached the Mahrez free-kick which put City back ahead, and you wonder where the goals will come from.
In Friday’s tactical training session, Marco Silva had told his players that there was a chance to get in behind City’s defence and he started the game with Theo Walcott’s mobility for that express purpose, although he had to go off early after a nasty bang to the head. ‘We tried to explore the spaces behind,’ he said.
There is no doubt that Guardiola delights in the tactical challenge and the obstacles to be navigated. Teams are challenging City aerially now, he observed.
‘There are a few teams using that. We adapt to it. I think when you win two Premier Leagues you face different styles.’
The return to Merseyside will be a test of his immaculate mind.