Is this Man City's best defence and does it suit Ruben Dias?

By Sports Desk April 10, 2021

Manchester City will take an aggregate lead into the second leg of a Champions League quarter-final for the first time when they travel to Borussia Dortmund, but there was another break with tradition in Manchester this week.

An hour and 15 minutes before events got underway at the Etihad Stadium, Pep Guardiola picked a starting XI that did not lead to raised eyebrows and mass consternation.

No midfield diamond, like the one that quickly lost its shine in a 3-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield in 2018; no overt caution as in the 1-0 loss at Tottenham that preceded a crazy second leg and an exit on away goals; no unwieldy 5-3-2 within which City froze so badly against Lyon last year.

Much of the runaway Premier League leaders' success this season has been based upon Guardiola harnessing the full depths of a talent-rich squad, mastering the art of pandemic football through shrewd rotation. So, given his line-ups have become increasingly tricky to predict, the prospects of a pre-match bolt from the blue were reduced.

However, if he has a best XI, the side that eventually prevailed 2-1 against Dortmund were something close to it. A midfield trio anchored by Rodri, ablaze with Kevin De Bruyne's creativity and gilded by Ilkay Gundogan's supreme movement and timely goals. Up front there was, well… no one in particular as Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden hovered around false nine Bernardo Silva.

And at the back, in front of an unusually erratic Ederson, were City's four best defenders this season. There was Joao Cancelo, the wildcard full-back/midfield hybrid who has given Guardiola's side a new dimension and added control. On the other flank, Kyle Walker – a right-back in the most conventional sense and one of Guardiola's most reliable performers of the past four campaigns.

At centre-back, the reborn John Stones was alongside Ruben Dias. An error on his England return last month stood out so much because Stones has been immense in sky blue this term. City have only conceded seven times with him on the field this season.

Then there is Dias, who joined as a club-record signing from Benfica in the aftermath of a 5-2 defeat to Leicester City. Such humiliation has never looked like being repeated with the Portugal international in harness.

"He’s been so important so far but still we have two months before the end of the season," Guardiola said ahead of Saturday's match with Leeds United, against whom Dias made his debut six months ago.

"He has been so important in the leadership and quality he has."

Despite their impressive individual performances, the Dortmund game was only the fifth time the Walker-Stones-Dias-Cancelo quartet has lined up together.

Given City have two Wembley dates this month and possibly more showpiece encounters to come as they pursue honours on four fronts, their potential status as a go-to defensive line is interesting, mainly because it is a setup in which the influential Dias seems a little uncomfortable.

The reason for this is rooted in the fact that, since City embarked upon their remarkable ongoing run of 27 wins in 28 matches, Guardiola's back four has not really been a back four.

In possession, which is most of the time when you're Manchester City, Cancelo's role is generally to bolster the midfield numbers. When Guardiola highlighted some of City's struggles in central areas against Dortmund, it was Rodri and Cancelo – tellingly not one of the Spain international's teamsheet midfield colleagues – who he namechecked.

That leaves three strung across the backline to start the build-up, a fundamental basis for any strong Guardiola performance. When Cancelo has started nominally from right-back, that three is usually Stones-Dias-Oleksandr Zinchenko. Walker's starts at right-back have often come with the left-footed central defender Aymeric Laporte in the line-up, meaning the back three in possession is Walker-Dias-Laporte.

Dias thrives in this position at the heart of things, with ball players on their natural sides flanking him. The problem when Walker and Cancelo start is Dias ends up on the left of the three, with Stones central.

"You are completely right, good point," Guardiola conceded when it was raised Dias was put slightly out of his comfort zone in midweek.

"We don't have left footer to pass the ball to the wider winger quicker with a natural left foot. That's true.

"But in that game we needed specifically Ruben in that position, with John, and that's why you use it. We won for other aspects in other positions and other situations."

So, Guardiola felt the trade-off was worth it due to benefits elsewhere. Considering how City came on strong down the stretch before Foden's dramatic winner, it is hard to argue too much.

A closer inspection of the games Walker, Stones, Dias and Cancelo have started shows Marco Reus' equaliser for Dortmund was the first goal City have conceded in this configuration. Previously, they drew 0-0 at Manchester United, beat Southampton 1-0 and Aston Villa and Borussia Monchengladbach 2-0, although Walker went off injured before half-time versus Villa and was replaced by Zinchenko.

But what of Dias? When starting with Stones, Walker and Cancelo, he averages 12 fewer passes per 90 minutes (78 down from 90) at a lower accuracy (91.1 from 93.8) than his overall season statistics, suggesting he is not so sure in possession on his unfavoured side of the field.

His duel success rate drops from 62.7 per cent to 50, with aerials falling from 66.1 to 54.5 per cent. His tackles per 90 minutes track upwards slightly from 0.9 to 1.3, although this could indicate the build-up flaws of this back three/four means more last-ditch defensive work.

Another game where Dias was on the left of the three in possession came in February against West Ham, where Walker started and Zinchenko performed the Cancelo role from the left.

Although Dias and Stones were the goalscoring heroes in a 2-1 win, City were ragged and Opta's expected goals (xG) figures for the game saw David Moyes' men 1.9-0.5 to the good at full-time, indicating Guardiola's normally smooth outfit rode their luck.

These are minor drop-offs and it is not as if City have looked useless in the games mentioned above. However, as Guardiola often likes to say, the biggest games can come down to the "small details".

Having the man who turned his defence around performing an uncomfortable task on one of those occasions is a risk he should perhaps avoid.

Related items

  • Rumour Has It: Liverpool emerge as top suitors for Lazio midfielder Milinkovic-Savic Rumour Has It: Liverpool emerge as top suitors for Lazio midfielder Milinkovic-Savic

    Liverpool are reportedly the most likely landing spot for Lazio midfielder Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in the upcoming transfer window.

    Milinkovic-Savic, 28, is in his eighth season at Lazio after arriving from Belgian side Genk ahead of the 2015-16 campaign. He has since racked up 330 appearances and 64 goals in all competitions.

    A Serbia international with 39 senior caps, the central midfielder has been named Lazio's Player of the Season two years running but his only silverware to show from his stint in Italy is the 2019 Coppa Italia and a pair of Supercoppa Italiana victories in 2017 and 2019.

    Milinkovic-Savic is expected to seek a new home next season at a regular Champions League contender, and compared to other in-demand central midfielders he will reportedly be available for an affordable fee.

     

    TOP STORY – LIVERPOOL LEAD THE RACE FOR MILINKOVIC-SAVIC

    According to Calciomercato, Milinkovic-Savic will be available in the off season for a fee in the range of €50million (£44m).

    There is only one more year remaining on his current deal, meaning Lazio would likely be on board with a sale if they cannot agree on an extension.

    Liverpool are named as the main club with both the interest and the capabilities to facilitate a deal – having been open about their desire to reinforce their midfield – while he is also a "dream" for Serie A rivals Juventus.

     

    ROUND-UP

    – Todo Fichajes are reporting Aston Villa are interested in making a move for Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku at the end of the season, as he is not expected to return to Stamford Bridge following his stint at Inter.

    – According to Football Insider, Chelsea would like to bring in 23-year-old Leeds United goalkeeper Illan Meslier to compete for the starting job with Kepa Arrizabalaga, and they are said to be more willing to meet the £30m asking price than fellow interested clubs Tottenham and Manchester United.

    United will look to part ways with club captain Harry Maguire and fellow defender Victor Lindelof after the season to make room and raise funds for incoming transfers, per Football Insider.

    – Calciomercato are reporting Juventus and Inter are investigating the possibility of adding 32-year-old out-of-favour Real Madrid winger Eden Hazard.

    – According to journalist Ekrem Konur, 27-year-old RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner could be heading back to the Premier League next season amid interest from unnamed clubs.

  • Spain call up Pino and Iglesias after Pedri, Moreno withdrawals Spain call up Pino and Iglesias after Pedri, Moreno withdrawals

    Yeremy Pino and Borja Iglesias have been called up to Spain's squad for their upcoming Euro 2024 qualifiers against Norway and Scotland.

    Pedri and Gerard Moreno withdrew from the squad over the weekend due to injury.

    Barcelona star Pedri missed Sunday's crucial Clasico win over Real Madrid after he failed to recover from a hamstring issue, and he will not feature in Luis de la Fuente's first games as Spain boss.

    Moreno, meanwhile, suffered a muscular problem during Villarreal's 3-0 LaLiga win over Osasuna.

    Winger Pino teed up Villarreal's final goal in that win, and the 20-year-old – who has netted three times in LaLiga this term and was included in Spain's World Cup squad – has been called in.

    He is joined by Real Betis forward Iglesias, who returns to the national team after missing out on Luis Enrique's squad for Qatar.

    The 30-year-old has scored 12 league goals this season, trailing only Enes Unal (13) and Robert Lewandowski (15).

    Spain must try to stop Erling Haaland when they host Norway on Saturday before facing Scotland three days later.

  • Inzaghi fumes over 'lack of respect' after VAR awards controversial Kostic winner Inzaghi fumes over 'lack of respect' after VAR awards controversial Kostic winner

    Simone Inzaghi feels Inter were shown a "lack of respect" after a VAR review decided to allow Filip Kostic's controversial winner in a 1-0 defeat to Juventus on Sunday.

    Kostic lashed home the decisive goal after 23 minutes at San Siro, though a lengthy VAR check was needed to judge whether the ball had taken a touch off Adrien Rabiot's arm in the build-up.

    The goal stood, and Juve went on to earn victory as the Bianconeri moved within nine points of third-placed Inter and seven points of the Champions League places.

    It was Inter's third defeat from their last four Serie A outings, and Inzaghi was left fuming by the decision to allow Juve's winner to stand, though he was also proud of the way his players responded to what he felt was an injustice.

    "The boys were good in the second half," Inzaghi told reporters in his post-match news conference. "At the end of the first half they saw what we suffered and it's unacceptable.

    "Honestly to talk about football it's difficult for me, it was even difficult for me to talk to the team after the first half. We tried to remedy it, despite an unacceptable goal.

    "There shouldn't be nervousness, but as far as the second half is concerned, the boys managed to keep calm to try to draw a match clearly spoiled by what happened.

    "What happened is too serious. It's a lack of respect, and when I feel there are no images [of the incident], it's all the more so. It took four minutes.

    "It's an irregular goal that penalises us, in a delicate moment, a delicate match. Conceding a goal like this is unacceptable."

    When asked if he had spoken to referee Daniele Chiffi in hopes of clarification, Inzaghi replied: "No, it was so clear that it didn't seem right to me. There are such clear and glaring images."

    The Nerazzurri have now won just one of their last five in all competitions, scoring just three goals across those games.

    This latest blunt attacking display saw them muster just three shots on target despite having 69.4 per cent possession.

    With the international break meaning Inter do not play again until April 1, Inzaghi is confident his players can use the league's pause to halt their poor run and enjoy a strong end to the season, explaining: "With all the matches we're going to play, I need everyone.

    "You played a match that you shouldn't have played and you lost. The team would have deserved another result but this is football."

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.