Any viewer looking at the team-sheets before Man City’s clash with Liverpool might reasonably have expected a high-scoring affair. As it turned out, one of the sides kept up their obligation towards that, and had the Reds remained with a full compliment of players, then it seems highly unlikely that City’s sheet would have remained blemish free.
Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have assembled thrilling, versatile attacking outfits, but for two sides expected to mount serious title challenges, and with City looking to go deep in the Champions League, their defensive ranks lacks both the necessary steel and depth.
Both sides have spent huge sums in the transfer window but it is baffling as to why neither splurged on a centre-half. Liverpool obviously craved Virgil van Dijk, but having sabotaged their own chances of signing a player who was equally desperate to move, the Reds failed to implement any Plan B. Southampton’s stance was clear weeks and months before the end of the window. Van Dijk was not the only centre-half who would have strengthened the centre of Klopp’s defence.
Any two from Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan will not provide anyone with the foundation upon which to mount a credible title challenge, especially when Klopp remains utterly unsure which of his keepers – if any – he actually trusts. Klavan and Matip will not face a front two all that often this season, and their rustiness in the face of such a challenge was evident long before Sadio Mane saw red for sticking his studs in Ederson’s face.
Mane’s dismissal and Liverpool’s subsequent surrender let City off the hook. Nicolas Otamendi will have been especially relieved. The Argentina defender spent the entire first half wandering everywhere along the the left channel of the defence except where he was supposed to be, before Guardiola took pity for the second time this season and switched him at half-time. Only Mo Salah’s woeful end product and Liverpool downing tools upon going to 10 men saved Otamendi from further embarrassment and, probably, a red card.
Of course, City look far more composed when their skipper is leading the defence, whether that be made up of a trio or quartet. But Vincent Kompany had to sit out the meeting with Liverpool with yet another calf complaint and Guardiola should have learned last season that his captain cannot be relied upon to make a consistent contribution. But, like Klopp, he ignored the blindingly obvious weakness at the core of his defence as he spent on almost every area around it.
Guardiola and Klopp pride themselves on their attacking, entertaining identities. But their teams plainly lack balance. Defending itself is not a dark art. Call it a necessary evil, if you must, but the greatest sides possess players who relish the challenge of standing up to opponents. The only thing that will help City and Liverpool is that most of their title rivals appear to share their contempt for the defensive dirty work.
The one manager at the top who recognises the need for balance is Jose Mourinho. His Manchester United team had not conceded a goal yet this season but having watched two individual contributions from their defensive ever-presents at Stoke, then you might question how.
Eric Bailly has received rave reviews since arriving from Villarreal last season and deservedly so. But the Ivorian is still prone to baffling lapses in concentration, as evidenced when he allowed Maxim Choupo-Moting to open his Premier League account. The Cameroon striker then capitalised on another mistake to equalise in the second half when Phil Jones – England’s best defender, apparently – tied himself up in knots to allow the Stoke new boy an easy header from point-blank range.
Mourinho perhaps needed a centre-half least of any of the managers eyeing the title, but he still went out to get one. Victor Lindelof, though, has yet to be seen in the Premier League and failed to make the bench again at the Bet365 Stadium. The Sweden international’s teething troubles reinforce the view that there is a scarcity of top-quality centre-halves available but, despite academies sacrificing defence for attack, they are not extinct just yet, despite Guardiola and Klopp’s willingness to make do with what they have, rather than look to reinforce an obvious weakness.
Of course, they have January to recruit, but the need for greater depth at the core of their defence is unlikely to be any more prevalent then than it has been for the last few months. As Chelsea, Leicester, United and City themselves have demonstrated, champions are built upon solid foundations, the like of which very few of the title hopefuls have laid.