It was not a good midweek for Manchester City central defenders past and present. While Matija Nastasic and Stefan Savic scored own goals for Schalke and Atletico Madrid respectively, Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones proved everything City supporters already knew. Watching Valencia vs Real Madrid on Wednesday, I half-expected Eliaquim Mangala to pick up the ball and walk it into his own goal to complete the set.
For all the gold-plating of this Manchester City squad since the arrival of Sheikh Mansour, the central defensive positions remain a problem, as if cursed by the ghosts of Tal Ben Haim and Tony Vaughan. Otamendi, Stones, Mangala, Nastasic and Savic have arrived in five of the last six summers for combined fees of close to £140m. None have proven themselves a fix, quick or otherwise.
In fact, since Savic’s arrival in 2012 – the first of those five to join – City have actually conceded more goals per league in each season:
2011/12 – 0.76 goals conceded per league game.
2012/13 – 0.89
2013/14 – 0.97
2014/15 – 1.00
2015/16 – 1.08
2016/17 – 1.16
When you consider City’s spend, that is an incredible statistic. Vincent Kompany, the club’s captain throughout that period, has started only 52% of City’s league games since the beginning of 2012/13, but even allowing for that absence this is an appalling record. City’s ranking in the Premier League for goals conceded over the same time period is proof of their declining standards:
2011/12 – 1st
2012/13 – 1st
2013/14 – 2nd
2014/15 – 5th
2015/16 – 5th
2016/17 – 7th
The latest two defenders to be placed in the spotlight are not dealing well with the attention. Stones does indeed merit patience due to his age, but this is not a raw teenager in the first throes of his career. Stones has played over 150 club games and has 15 caps for his country. At what point do we stop looking at the positives of a centre-back who was bullied throughout by Radamel Falcao, showed a bizarre lack of awareness for Monaco’s first goal and still suffers from worrying lapses in concentration?
If Stones has time on his side, Otamendi’s is running out. The Argentinean’s agent last week claimed that Real Madrid and Barcelona were interested in signing his client this summer, but if that was intended as a nifty PR strategy it backfired spectacularly. You could envisage queues of City supporters lining up to contribute petrol money or a place in their passenger seat, and some of the club’s hierarchy may form part of the throng.
Tuesday evening brought the full range of Otamendi’s repertoire. He has an almost mesmeric inability to judge a counter-attack, which leads to him either charging up the pitch and being made to look silly or failing to react at all, but little in between. If a picture tells a thousand words then the video below offers more still. This is the type of reactive defending coaches try and eradicate at youth level. Otamendi also conceded a penalty, just for good measure. He is 29; he will not improve.
Otamendi's still looking for Kylian Mbappe. pic.twitter.com/sRH6oFvvAX
— Andy Ha (@_AndyHa) February 21, 2017
City’s attackers – and Willy Caballero – gave their side the advantage against Monaco, but their defence continues to give any opposition a chance. In his post-match press conference, Pep Guardiola stressed that his team would be eliminated if they did not score in the second leg. To reiterate, that’s an elite manager admitting that his defence will concede at least twice, two weeks before the game. It is absurd.
“The first goal was a mistake, the second was a mistake but today the lesson is that we never give up,” said Guardiola. The teacher might be detailing his lesson plans, but City’s defensive dunces show no signs of educational progress.