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By Chris Bevan
BBC Sport
“If his injury is as bad as it seems, it alters the name towards Anfield. It is that big”
This has been BBC pundit Jermaine Jenas’s response on Match of the Day, a few hours after visiting Manchester City protector Aymeric Laporte carried off throughout their win over Brighton on 31 August.
When the extent of Laporte’s knee injury was evaluated over the global break, the news wasn’t great for the Frenchman, or City.
He is not expected to return to action at the earliest, before the start of 2020 while the prevented the fate of Leroy Sane, who’s sidelined until March after damaging his anterior cruciate ligament during the Community Shield.
If that prognosis is right, Laporte will miss at least 15 Premier League games and the start of their Carabao Cup defence.
It adds up to about a third of City’s year, therefore we are about to find out just how important he is – especially considering that City’s two older centre-backs have played a good deal less than you may think.
Since then he joined City in the start of 2018 from Athletic Bilbao for # 57m, it has largely become’Laporte and another’ at the centre of City’s defence, although he has moved to pay at left-back.
“Laporte is their gladiator at the trunk – City’s leader and number one guardian,” stated BBC pundit Chris Sutton. “So it is going to be interesting to see how they cope with no principal man.
“He’s for City what Virgil van Dijk is for Liverpool. His job is protecting, although of course it is essential he can bring out the ball well. He gets City more powerful, and he offers them stability right throughout the team.
“Pep named Laporte the greatest left-sided centre-back in Europe a month for a reason. Losing him affects the dynamic of the entire back four, and he will be a large part missing from their team.”
With John Stones also on his way back from injury, since Vincent Kompany left in the summer without a replacement signed, Guardiola has only one fully fit – Nicolas Otamendi.
At the City can use into the gap to be plugged by Fernandinho.
Even the 34-year-old Brazilian holding-midfielder was coaching even before Laporte came from the bench to replace him against Brighton got hurt, and might step in in Norwich on Saturday.
Once Stones is fully fit, he or she Otamendi can – in theory form a much pairing that is orthodox.
They’ve played plenty of times before in the past, including in this season’s Community Shield, so intimacy will not be a problem, however they do not seem to be a partnership which Pep trusts.
Since the left-footed Laporte united in January 2018, Stones and Otamendi have begun together as centre-backs in a four-man defence only three times in 56 Premier League matches, and in not one of the 14 Champions League ties City have played with in that time.
Last year they spanned each other in three FA Cup ties – against Burnley Rotherham and Newport County – and against Bournemouth and Everton in the League.
The only other competitive game they have started together as a central-defensive pair in the last 20 months was against Huddersfield at the conclusion of their 2017-18 season, making a total of six games from a possible 80 in most competitions (not including the Community Shield).
“He clearly does not have much faith in playing them together, which must be a concern for the upcoming few weeks,” explained Sutton.
“That statistic is a sudden one,” added Danny Murphy. “It may be that the supervisor thinks they don’t work that well as a combination, or that neither of these particularly likes playing the left side”
Otamendi, who’s right-footed, generally moves from the right side into the left when Laporte isn’t accessible – he did exactly that during the Brighton match – although Stones – another right-footer – hasn’t played the left side having any partner since the early weeks of his City career.
“Many centre-halves I performed during my career was used to playing one facet in a four years, and then that there were also times when the manager would convince himself a protector wasn’t as successful on the opposing side,” Murphy explained.
“At Liverpool, Sami Hypia would always be on the left, along with Jamie Carragher on the appropriate. It had been Aaron Hughes to the right and Brede Hangeland.
“And when one of them wasn’t fit, then the manager would always be looking at the balance of the centre-halves, rather than only pure ability, when he picked a replacement – I remember that Chris Smalling never did as well on the left once he came into that Fulham group because he did about the correct.
“With the caliber that Stones and Otamendi both have, I don’t believe that they should be uncomfortable on the left, but you have to recall Pep watches them in training every day. He will know something in his mind about that of his centre-halves match the remainder of the group, and each other.
“Another thing that might have been a element in not picking them collectively is the number of mistakes they make. Both of them are great ball players, however, they both have more errors in them than Kompany or even Laporte, which might be why Pep prefers to play them.”
Stones in particular has come under fire because of his errors, and he had been left out for a lot of the run-in to the title success of last season.
“I believe Stones has a bit to show to Pep anyhow, rather than just in this venture,” added Sutton. “That is a big opportunity for you to do that.
“Some of his defending has been suspicious over the past couple of years and, this past season, at the large games he was being left out. Laporte’s absence means he’s really going to have to step up.”
While we have to wait and see whether Stones can win over Guardiola, it seems the City boss already has religion in Fernandinho.
“He’s a holding midfielder and everybody knows that, me included,” Guardiola said after the Brighton game.
“However, I think he’s the conditions to perform centre-back. He’s intelligent, fast, strong, he can go the ball and that he can see what is happening in front of him.”
Murphy agrees, explaining:”As long as Rodri stays fit and can play with that holding role, then Fernandinho playing with centre-half isn’t actually weakening City which much.
“He’s everything Pep says, plus he’s super-experienced and really great on the ball. The manner City perform, he will have inter-changed using all the centre-halves all of the time anyhow when he is in his customary position.
“But the most important thing for me personally is that he’s a pure defender. He enjoys doing it and I really don’t see this as a case of asking somebody when he doesn’t really wish to be there, to be able. That’s when you get problems.
“Provided that you have the right physical attributes and also the ability, which Fernandinho does, then actually it is only a mindset change. He is probably very excited about it, because it is something different and new, and it is also far less demanding in your body to play centre-half than center midfield.
“He is not the only other option, though, because Kyle Walker has played centre-half for England. I understand that has been in a three, maybe not a four, but Kyle is a seasoned defender, who is strong and fast and great on the ball – I would think about using him also.”
It’s the timing, When there’s anything positive regarding the harm of Laporte.
City do not face any significant obstacles of Dinamo Zagreb Shakhtar Donetsk along with Atalanta, along with their instant domestic fixture list looks relatively form.
Until they confront name rivals Liverpool at Anfield on 9 November, providing their Laporte-less defence lots of time inside the champions don’t play with yet another side from last season six. They will need to be ready to get Klopp’s side however.
“Both groups are completely persistent and if you look at the way they ended last year and have begun that one, it is possible to observe those head-to-heads are going to be absolutely crucial,” said Sutton.
“It is the small details that may well decide the title this season – there was only a point between Liverpool and City out time, and it appears like it’s going to be as close this time.
“They have to be sitting there looking at each other and looking for smaller things which they are able to take advantage of. This is only one of them. Nobody wants injuries to pick matters, but of course they will play a role.
“In the event City do keep needing to use a makeshift centre-half, even a great one like Fernandinho, it could ultimately be the distinction between them winning the name, or Liverpool.
“In this circumstance, things like defending set-pieces might become more problematic. City have something of there, even. Without him, I am certain that many Premier League managers will believe there is a chance to target them aerially. That might be enough, although City might be just cost one target by it.
“They could get away with it within the next few months as they’re such a great side, but as soon as the big games such as Liverpool come together it will be different.
“That’s when it will be more of an issue and, for me personally, that’s when Stones must come to the party.”
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