Manchester City: The Curious Case of Center Back

SHANGHAI, CHINA - JULY 20: Managers Pep Guardiola of Manchester City reacts during the Premier League Asia Trophy 2019 finals match between Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Shanghai Hongkou Stadium on July 20, 2019 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images for Premier League)
SHANGHAI, CHINA - JULY 20: Managers Pep Guardiola of Manchester City reacts during the Premier League Asia Trophy 2019 finals match between Manchester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Shanghai Hongkou Stadium on July 20, 2019 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images for Premier League) /

With the end of the transfer window rapidly approaching, Manchester City have left themselves in a curious position in the center of their defense.

It’s been a relatively quiet summer for Manchester City until this point.

Though they’ve brought in two players during this transfer window, including a club-record signing in Rodri, not much else has happened around the other areas in their squad.

Manchester City may have done well to bring to back Angelino and sign Rodri, as both addressed depth issues that have hindered the squad in each of the past two seasons. However, the team is still quite short in one obvious position as the window draws to a close: Center-Back.

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City saw their captain, Vincent Kompany, depart earlier this summer. His departure leaves the club with just three senior options in the center of defense at the moment: John Stones, Aymeric Laporte, and Nicolas Otamendi.

The team also has a fourth option looming in their youth academy in Eric Garcia, but whether he’ll feature regularly in the squad this season remains up for debate.

With only a few days left in the window, it seems more unlikely by the day that the club will end up bringing someone in before the summer window draws to a close.

With it looking the club will enter the 2019-20 season with just three senior center-back options, Manchester City are putting themselves in an unusual and potentially risky position if something were to go wrong at center back because of their lack of depth.

City’s center of defense has been no stranger to issues in recent seasons, even though the club has been incredibly successful during that time.

Muscle injuries caused John Stones to miss 17 games during the 2017-18 season, a season where he looked like he was well on his way to becoming an elite defender. Last year, he went through periods of patchy form and was essentially relegated to a reserve role over the final third of the season because.  His abysmal form for England this summer has not helped matters.

Nicolas Otamendi hasn’t had any trouble being durable in his time at the club, but he has been prone to making rash mistakes, especially in crucial games. That has caused manager Pep Guardiola to move away from using him in the team’s biggest matches if he has other options available.

The only player of the three who City have been able to rely on consistently in the center of defense over the past 18 months has been Aymeric Laporte. The concern with him, if there is one, is that the number of games he’s playing may cause him to break down at some point (he played 51 games last season for the club). He’s had to shoulder an incredible load because City’s other options haven’t been as reliable.

City are leaving themselves a bit light, then,  in central defense if they fail to sign anyone else this summer. Though these three players are certainly capable of being world-class options, the odds of all three staying healthy, and being in great form for an entire 50-60 game season, seems like a very tall ask. If just one of the three has trouble, the team will be putting themselves in a position where they’d only have two true options, at best, to choose from in this position at any given time.

Perhaps the club views Rodri as a fourth option here. He is tall enough (six foot three), strong enough, and skilled enough to play the position if asked to do so. City will have to find creative ways to get their ridiculously deep midfield enough playing time to keep everyone happy too (they have seven first-team quality options at the moment: Bernardo, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Ilkay Gundogan, Fernandinho, and Rodri). Using him as a fourth defender is a way to do this.

We’ve also seen Pep Guardiola experiment with using Kyle Walker and Fernandinho as make-shift center backs with some success in recent seasons. Both could feature as emergency options if need be.

Eric Garcia, who we’ve also briefly discussed in this article, could be another option, but his age and physical build raise serious questions about whether he’s prepared for the rigors of the Premier League right now. Even if he has sky-high potential, he may not be ready for a regular role if something were to thrust him into that this season.

City also still have time to make a move on the transfer market  if they so choose.

I’ve argued that Manchester City should seriously consider signing Bayern Leverkusen center-back Jonathan Tah this summer if they’re looking for a fourth option. J.C. Gonzalez on our Playing for 90 page has argued for “Inter’s Milan Škriniar or Bournemouth’s Nathan Aké” as potential options as well.

Whether any worthwhile talents are actually available at center back, however, remains to be seen. It stands to reason that, if there was an impact guy available who the club really liked, they would have already made a move for them.

Another way City could address their depth in the window would be to bring in Juventus Right-back Joao Cancelo. Though he wouldn’t be an option at center-back himself, his signing would free up Kyle Walker to rotate between right-back and the center of defense. Walker has shown for England that he can be a good option in this spot.

Even if they sign no one, and their internal options aren’t adequate, they can always dive back into the market in January too.

Running with just their internal options, however, carries substantial risk. As we saw just one season ago, the margin for error in the league could be very thin. Even one rough month of form could be the difference between winning the league or seeing a rival hoist the Premier League trophy next May. If City leave themselves with just three true options at center-back, they may be setting themselves up for trouble, especially with the problems that some of their options have had over the past 18 months.

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Regardless of how they deal with this, Manchester City have left themselves in a curious position at center back. It will be interesting to see how things unfold in this position in the weeks and months to come. The success of their season may very well turn on how they handle this spot.