Manchester City’s Defensive Woes Shouldn’t Have Come As Such A Surprise

That Wolves scored twice at the Etihad Stadium, the home of the Premier League champions, on Sunday was a shock, but an even bigger shock was that they could have scored more. Manchester City’s 2-0 defeat in front of their own fans might have been a surprise, but it was no fluke. Pep Guardiola’s side got what they deserved.

Of course, this wasn’t completely against the grain of recent form. Injuries to Aymeric Laporte and John Stones have left City defensively vulnerable in recent weeks as demonstrated by the defeat to Norwich City last month and the 2-2 home draw with Tottenham in just the second game of the new season. City have been untouchable over the past two seasons. This season, however, they have been a soft touch.

This isn’t the first time that Guardiola’s defensive methods have been questioned, though. In fact, such scrutiny was a mark of his time in charge of both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. The Catalan might be the greatest coach of his generation, but it’s at the back where his one weakness has been found over the years.

Guardiola’s teams often boast strong defensive records. Last season, for instance, Man City conceded the second fewest goals in the Premier League, just one more than Liverpool. But this is down to the style of football professed by the Catalan rather than his capacity as a defensive organiser.

Indeed, Guardiola’s footballing ideology often masks his teams’ vulnerabilities at the back. Their dominance of the ball means opponents are restricted in the number of attacking opportunities they are presented. Guardiola asks his centre backs to step outside their comfort zone by demanding they act as deep-lying passing metronomes, but as barriers to the opposition his methods are sometimes lacking.

At Bayern Munich, Guardiola’s side was consistently found out in the latter stages of the Champions League. The Bavarians conceded five times over two semi final legs against Barcelona in 2015. The season before that, Bayern Munich were thumped 4-0 at home by Real Madrid at the same stage of the competition.

Even during his time at Barcelona, Guardiola was frequently questioned over a perceived defensive ignorance. Over time, opposition sides figured out how to expose the Catalans at the back with Chelsea’s Champions League semi final at the Camp Nou an illustration of how Guardiola’s team lost at least some of their aura. Sound familiar?

Maybe it’s because Guardiola sees his defence as a first line of attack rather than a barrier to the opposition. His use of Fernandinho as a centre back suggests his to be the case. Whatever his philosophical outlook, City’s current defence isn’t working for them and it’s up to Guardiola to come up with a solution at least until Laporte and Stones return from injury in the new year.

This might involve using Eric Garcia, the 18-year-old centre back who until now has been largely overlooked, alongside Nicolas Otamendi rather than Fernandinho. Another option might be to shift to a back three, deploying Kyle Walker on the right side of the central unit and summer signing Joao Cancelo in the wing back role. 

Guardiola’s City team are slightly different to his previous sides in the way they play through the lines of transition. It’s not quite ‘Tiki-Taka,’ but an adapted interpretation of the famed philosophy implemented by their manager most purely during his time at Barcelona. It could be that the defending Premier League champions become more focussed on keeping possession to limit the level of defensive exposure over the coming weeks.

Whatever the solution, there can be no doubting Guardiola needs one. Just like his Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams needed before at one time or another. These are familiar problems Manchester City are currently suffering from, but their manager has still to prove that he can come up with answers. 

I am a soccer writer based in the United Kingdom. Over a decade in the industry I have written for newspapers, magazines and websites around the world including the New ...