Man City defensive dilemma causing Pep Guardiola a headache
Manchester City faced Brighton on Wednesday with all four centre backs fit for the first time in over a month, but they ended the match with two of them having been substituted with injury concerns. John Stones and Nathan Ake are being assessed by City today after they were withdrawn early from the fixture at the Etihad.
With the vast array of attacking talent among City ’s ranks, manager Pep Guardiola usually has a challenge on his hands on who to pick week-in week-out for the Premier League champions.
For the first time in several games, Guardiola had a fully-fit selection of all four of the senior team’s centre backs following Ruben Dias’ timely return from injury. The Portuguese defender suffered an injury vs Peterborough United in the FA Cup last 16 and hasn’t featured for City since, but came on at half-time against the Seagulls in place of Nathan Ake.
Dias has cut a colossal figure for Manchester City since arriving at the club in September of 2020, forming a fantastic centre back partnership with John Stones last season that saw the pair seeing the pair claim 14 clean sheets in all competitions when starting together and playing the full 90 minutes last season. To add to this, the duo only conceded 13 goals in this time too.
The Portuguese defender’s performances didn’t go under the radar as he hoovered up the individual awards claiming the Premier League Player of the Season, Manchester City Player of the Year and UEFA Champions League Defender of the Season awards in his debut season at the Manchester club.
City fans were therefore understandably worried when it was confirmed by Guardiola that the defender could miss up to six weeks of the season after being removed at half time vs Peterborough. In Dias’ absence, Dutch centre back Nathan Ake has stepped up massively. Originally signed from then then relegated Bournemouth in the summer of 2020, many saw Ake as a bench player with an agenda of rotation at best.
Yet this season, the former Chelsea player has proved his critics wrong, contributing to city’s fantastic performances. With goal line clearances vs Arsenal and Burnley (although the latter was adjudged to be offside), Ake has quite literally put himself on the line for City.
This work ethic and quality has stepped up to a whole new level since Dias has been absent with the Dutch defender putting in a great performance at the unorthodox position of left back against Atletico Madrid in City’s 1-0 first leg quarter-final win at the Etihad Stadium earlier this month. Ake also added to this by making a substitute cameo in the return leg in Madrid and despite only being on the pitch for 17 minutes, managed to make more clearances (five) than any other player on the pitch.
Even in City’s 3-2 defeat to Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, Ake was one of the better players in the team, going on to make several goal-saving tackles and blocks vs Liverpool’s dangerman Mohammed Salah.
This presents a headache for Pep Guardiola heading into the final seven Premier League fixtures with a title race on his hands. Current champions City and nearest challengers Liverpool are separated by just one point heading into the final stretch.
Guardiola must work out what his strongest defence is so that he can deploy it in the toughest games of the title race such as tricky away trips to both Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Ham United. Both John Stones and Aymeric Laporte have also been in good form which further adds to the defensive puzzle. It would be cruel to see Ake miss out after such an inspired run of form but even if the centre back opportunities start to dry out with the return of leader Dias, there may be potentially a spot at left back for the Dutchman.
Having played for both Chelsea and Watford earlier in his career in that position, Ake is no stranger to it and his great showing vs Atletico proved that he still has it in his locker. His competition would be the immensely impressive Joao Cancelo but also Oleksandr Zinchenko. Zinchenko has struggled for games as of late and looked out of his depth vs Liverpool at the weekend so it is no surprise that the young defender’s head is not in the right place given the horrific events occurring in his home country of Ukraine.
Between playing both centre back and left back for the Premier League Champions, Ake could still see similar levels of involvement with the return of Dias as he did in the absence of City’s vice-captain. Headaches aside, it is certainly a positive for City that all four centre backs are fit and firing ahead of the season’s climax as all will be needed if City are to retain their Premier League crown.