EPL

Manchester City wing-backs take flight after Pep's latest innovation

By Sports Desk January 01, 2020

As Manchester City continue to toil defensively in the absence of lynchpin Aymeric Laporte, the switch to a back three against Everton may not have represented the most obvious solution.

So largely desperate have Nicolas Otamendi's performances been this season, City's sole fit senior centre-back only made the bench against Sheffield United on Sunday, two days on from a 90-minute shift in the dramatic collapse at Wolves.

Injury meant there would be no recall for the Argentina defender on New Year's Day, so Pep Guardiola was again struggling to find a central pair, let alone a trio.

But faced with the nous of Carlo Ancelotti, a coach he spent much of the week lauding, Guardiola decided to make the bold call.

Teenager Eric Garcia kept his place following his full Premier League debut against the Blades, and he was joined by midfielders Fernandinho and Rodri.

A 2-1 City victory was the result, and the wider positives were clear to see as the champions stretched Everton to breaking point, a change in defence bringing a new dynamic to their forward line.

City are one of the best attacking outfits in world football, so improvements in that respect are always likely to be marginal. But there is no doubt Guardiola has had issues at full-back this season.

Kyle Walker might be playing as "the best Kyle I have faced" - Guardiola's words - but pre-season signing Joao Cancelo has struggled to establish himself.

Bought from Juventus just months ago, the right-back has been linked with former club Valencia and Bayern Munich, and discussion of his future took up a chunk of his manager's pre-match news conference.

"We buy players for many years, not for six months," said Guardiola, before handing Cancelo just his fifth league start against Everton.

On the opposite flank, Benjamin Mendy - brought in at huge cost in 2017 - has endured a tough campaign. Injuries halted his initial fine form upon his arrival in Manchester, and displays in 2019-20 have been extremely ordinary for the most part.

But both Cancelo and Mendy certainly saw benefit in this new system, given the freedom of the flanks as Rodri and Garcia stepped forward and Fernandinho anchored the side, the three covering for their wing-back colleagues.

Cancelo linked well with Riyad Mahrez and played a key role in the Phil Foden goal that was disallowed in the now customary stretch of VAR farce in the first half.

Meanwhile, Mendy, even up against two talented right-backs in Djibril Sidibe and Seamus Coleman, enjoyed himself going forward, moving the ball at greater speed than in previous miserable performances.

The France international created three chances - as many as any team-mate - while Cancelo supplied two.

Beyond the added threat of support from the previously limited pair, the set-up accommodated different roles for the likes of Mahrez and Foden.

The nominal wingers in this formation instead found space inside, Mahrez teeing up Gabriel Jesus' second. The Brazilian's first came from an Ilkay Gundogan pass, the midfielder let off the leash a little with three men behind him.

It was a system that had to sustain a testing finale, hampered by the predictably unpredictable Claudio Bravo, while crosses remained a source of concern for the diminutive defence into the closing stages, but Guardiola's men held on.

Openly already planning for next season but without Laporte to call on, the City boss could head home encouraged by a different, still dominant, display.

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