Can Manchester City’s defense unhinge their title challenge?

Once again, Manchester City’s defense has let them down through a silly mistake. This time it was John Stones, whose no look pass set up Nathan Redmond beautifully for an opening Southampton goal. This defender assist is almost as bad as the Lucas Leiva assist on Jamie Vardy in the Liverpool-Leicester game a few weeks ago. This isn’t the first time a Manchester City defender has allowed a freak goal or two. The Manchester City defense can be faulted for goals from Barcelona, Everton, Spurs, and Celtic. Yes, in some ways you can blame a defender for any goal, but look at the Southampton goal, and you’ll see what I mean.

The fact of the matter is that Pep Guardiola is taking a risk with the type of defenders he is utilizing. In John Stones, he has a young, ball-playing centerback. To that end,  Guardiola has shown faith in the young English defender by making him omnipresent in the center of defense. He has since seen pairings with both Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany in both a three and four defender backlines. Both Otamendi and Kompany are relatively skilled on the ball, for centerbacks, so it is clear to see a distinct style. Ball-playing centerbacks may be great for maintaining possession and starting the attack, but can also lack a defensive solidarity that more old school defenders have. For example, in the goal pictured above, Kompany is pushed away by Redmond far too easily and was also far too slow to react. The same can be said of Claudio Bravo, who, for all his strengths as a sweeper keeper, failed in sweeping up the ball. They may be excellent in moving the ball up the field, but can also be prone to mistakes like this.

[link_box id=”23195″ site_id=”158″ layout=”link-box-third” alignment=”alignright”]Part of the issue may be down to a lack of understanding between the defense. As mentioned above, Manchester City have utilized a defensive system with four at the back, three at the back, and, technically, five at the back at different times. The central defensive pairing has also changed drastically, with seven different setups in fifteen games this season. That’s just over two games per setup.  Is that enough time for each player to fully understand that defensive system that they are expected to perform in? See, Pep Guardiola has been accused of trying to be too ‘cute’ with his formations and tactics in the past, and this is one area where that criticism can probably be leveled. Defense is as taxing mentally as it is physically, maybe moreso even than attack. If players don’t fully understand their role, it is easy to get bogged down and make mental errors instead of knowing what to do and analyze the situation. Look at the goal above. Stones has been taught to play the ball out of defense and when in doubt, the keeper is a safe option. So here, we have Stones being pressured by Southampton. Playing the ball to Ilkay Gundogan, which was perhaps less controlled, but put the ball in a safer position, Stones opted to pass the ball back without looking. This cognitive breakup and confusion essentially causes the mistake.

The fact of the matter is that this style, a fluid passing style, is one that the manager has chosen to implement throughout the team. It is a risky, ambitious, and exciting style that should be applauded. Part of this is playing from the back and utilizing defenders who are capable of this. It also means taking mistakes on the chin when they happen. Pep Guardiola is imprinting a style on this team that has a very steep learning curve. The style was a success at Barcelona because the players grow up playing that style, so they are masters upon entry into the first team. Manchester City have a great coach and a lot of talent. It will just take a bit for everything to even out for them.

About Jeff Snyder

Jeff Snyder is a professional writer and has been in sports broadcast for almost half a decade. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheJackAnty.