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: Phillips to snub Man Utd for Liverpool, Arsenal plot Richarlison move Rumour Has It: Phillips to snub Man Utd for Liverpool, Arsenal plot Richarlison move

    Is a Leeds United midfielder ready to reject a switch to Old Trafford?

    Typically, Manchester United are too big to turn down but Kalvin Phillips is believed to be willing to withstand their interest due to the rivalry between the two clubs.

    The beneficiaries of such a decision? Liverpool apparently.

     

    TOP STORY – PHILLIPS TO TURN DOWN MAN UTD

    Leeds United star Kalvin Phillips will snub a move to Manchester United in favour of Premier League rivals Liverpool, according to The Sun.

    Phillips has emerged as a target for Leeds' bitter rivals United, while Liverpool are also admirers of the England international.

    Wary of the backlash a move to Old Trafford would cause among Leeds fans, Phillips is ready to reject United and join Liverpool.

     

    ROUND-UP

    Arsenal are plotting a move for Everton star Richarlison, claims Fichajes. The Brazil international scored against Arsenal on Monday, while he has been linked with Paris Saint-Germain.

    - Fabrizio Romano reports Borussia Dortmund have made direct contact with Salzburg star Karim Adeyemi. The Germany international is Dortmund's main target as clubs queue up to sign Erling Haaland, who is wanted by Manchester United, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, Chelsea, PSG, Juventus and Bayern Munich.

    - Tuttomercato says Franck Kessie could leave Milan on a free transfer. The soon-to-be free agent has been linked with Tottenham, Inter, PSG and United.

    Fiorentina are poised to sign Lille star Jonathan Ikone, per Gianluca Di Marzio. The deal is reportedly not related to the future of wantaway forward Dusan Vlahovic – the Serbia international has been linked with City, United, Bayern, Inter, Juve, Tottenham and Arsenal.

  • Barca fortunate Bayern didn't score 'significantly' more goals – Nagelsmann Barca fortunate Bayern didn't score 'significantly' more goals – Nagelsmann

    Julian Nagelsmann believes Bayern Munich would have won by an even greater margin had they not taken their foot of the pedal in Wednesday's comprehensive Champions League win over Barcelona.

    Bayern outclassed and overpowered Barca 3-0 midweek, a result that eliminated the embattled LaLiga giants from the Champions League.

    Thomas Muller, Leroy Sane and Jamal Musiala were on target for Group E winners Bayern, who progressed to the knockout phase with a 100 per cent record.

    Bayern led 2-0 at half-time thanks to Muller and Sane before Musiala netted a third just past the hour-mark at Allianz Arena.

    With 22 goals scored and just three conceded, Bayern's goal difference of plus-19 during the group stages has only been bettered once before in Champions League history – Paris Saint-Germain in 2017-18 (+21 - F25 A4).

    Afterwards, Bayern head coach Nagelsmann felt Barca were fortunate not to have conceded more in Munich.

    "We played against an opponent who, of course, has a very big name and actually had to win today," Nagelsmann told DAZN.

    "We have never really let it unfold properly. In the second half we clearly defended deeper and let them have the ball a little more, but I believe that if we put it on properly, then we could have scored significantly more goals than three."

    Along with Liverpool and Ajax, Bayern became the third side this season to win all six Champions League group-stage matches.

    This is the first campaign to see more than one team manage this in the same season, whilst the German outfit are just the second team ever to do so on more than one occasion (also in 2019-20), alongside Real Madrid (2011-12 and 2014-15).

    Asked if Bayern are favourites to win the Champions League, Nagelsmann replied: "It's always a huge topic for the journalists: 'Who is the favourite?' You can write a lot about it. In the end, it's a fact that in the knockout stage there are more factors.

    "Sometimes the daily performance is decisive or some lucky moments. You don't have time to bring something back in order if you made some mistakes before. Of course, all teams that reach the knockout stage are some kind of favourites and can win this title. We as well. We did very well in the group stage. It's well deserved and also today our focus was really good and we reached the next round.

    "It's our own requirement to be one of the favourites, of course. We would like to win the Champions League and some of us would like to win it again. We need to show the same performances in the knockout stage and keep the same level. I believe that my team can do this. But in the end it's only about doing it. Now we wait for our opponent and then we will prepare for that, but there's still some time."

    Barca – amid a financial crisis – were consigned to the Europa League/UEFA Cup for the first time since 2003-04 following their Bayern defeat.

    It is the fourth time Barcelona have been eliminated in the Champions League group stage after 1997-98, 1998-99 and 2000-01, and the second time that they have fallen to the secondary European competition from the Champions League group stage following 2000-2001 (then, to play the UEFA Cup after finishing third behind Milan and Leeds United).

    Barca's tally of two goals after their six group-stage matches is their lowest recorded total in the Champions League, whilst only in 1997-98 (14) did they concede more goals at this stage than the nine they have shipped this season.

    "I think that the club can bounce back," Nagelsmann said of Barca. "It's still one of the biggest clubs. Today we deserved the victory and in both games we showed really good performances and our wins were well deserved.

    "I think Barcelona are a club with a lot of expertise and good guys. Not only Xavi, but also guys in the back who will make intelligent decisions for this club. I already said in the news conference before the game that it's not easy to deal with more than €1billion in debt in the daily business. It's about extremely tough decisions that need to be taken. This can take a while.

    "If I think that this would happen to us, then I am sure it would take a while until we could bounce back and be successful again. I wish them all the best and I hope the club will be soon the glorious Barcelona again that we all know."

  • Barca sink to new low as president Laporta urges unity at Camp Nou: We must row together Barca sink to new low as president Laporta urges unity at Camp Nou: We must row together

    Barcelona president Joan Laporta called for unity after the embattled club were dumped out of the Champions League.

    Barca were consigned to the Europa League/UEFA Cup for the first time since 2003-04 on Wednesday, outclassed 3-0 by Group E winners Bayern Munich at Allianz Arena.

    Xavi's Barca needed to win or hope Benfica failed to beat Dynamo Kiev elsewhere in the final round of group fixtures in order to avoid elimination, but the struggling LaLiga giants were no match for Bayern, who were led by goals from Thomas Muller, Leroy Sane and Jamal Musiala.

    It is the fourth time Barcelona have been eliminated in the Champions League group stage after 1997-98, 1998-99 and 2000-01, and the second time that they have fallen to the secondary European competition from the Champions League group stage following 2000-2001 (then, to play the UEFA Cup after finishing third behind Milan and Leeds United).

    Barca are also seventh in LaLiga, 16 points off the pace as Laporta addressed the club's plight.

    "We are sad about this result, but we have to move on. It is time to work hard and try to reverse this situation," Laporta told TV3.

    "We have not been able to go down to the locker room to lift the players. We will speak with the coaching staff on the plane.

    "We did what we could and now we have to try to overcome this situation.

    "I make a call to all the Barcelona fans, today more than ever we have to row all together in the same direction to try to overcome this situation altogether."

    Barca's tally of two goals after their six group-stage matches is their lowest recorded total in the Champions League, whilst only in 1997-98 (14) did they concede more goals at this stage than the nine they have shipped this season.

    Xavi became second Barcelona head coach to fail to win in his first two Champions League games (D1 L1), after Louis Van Gaal in 1997 (D1 L1).

    Barca boss Xavi added in a news conference: "This must be a turning point. I have told the players, today a new stage has to begin for Barca, revealing ourselves to this situation.

    "We cannot accept this situation because Barcelona does not deserve to be where we are today. I tell the Barcelona fans that we will work hard because I feel this club, I love this club and we will work hard. We will leave our skin to [help] Barca recover and put them where they deserve, and that is not in the Europa League.

    "But we have to face it, it is a hard reality but it is what there is. It is the reality and we have to face it and rebel and this has to serve as a turning point to improve."

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.