Manchester City’s chances of repeating (again) as Premier League champions in 2019-20 appears to hinge upon the performances of one unit in particular: the defense.
[ MORE: 2019-20 season preview: Manchester City ]
It’s a rather thin unit which could have probably used reinforcements during the summer transfer window, but with barely 24 hours to go before the window closes, that’s a largely moot point. They are who they are, and they’ll kick off their quest for a third straight PL title against West Ham United on Saturday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).
Thanks in large part to Aymeric Laporte proving himself worth every last penny of the $65 million he cost, and in smaller part a renaissance of health from Vincent Kompany, Man City shaved four goals from the conceded column in defending their 2017-18 PL crown (when they conceded 27 times) with another triumph in 2018-19 (23, one more than Liverpool).
Now, though, Kompany is gone after taking over as player-manager at Anderlecht, and Man City went against conventional wisdom and signed no one to replace his on-field production, let alone his off-field leadership. If paying $97 million for Harry Maguire was their best, or only, option, perhaps they are better off going this route.
Given the personnel that Pep Guardiola has at his disposal, he faces one of two — or, potentially two of two — unsavory options for how to line up his defense.
- In a back-three, he’ll have just one backup (Nicolas Otamendi, most likely) for three positions, likely to be occupied by Laporte, John Stones and Kyle Walker
- In a back-four, he’ll have three options who fit (Laporte, Stones, Otamendi) for two positions and one who’ll be forced out to right back (Walker), at which point he’ll still have just one backup
If Benjamin Mendy can stay healthy for a full season, the full backs are likely to be a non-issue; Joao Cancelo should lock down the starting spot at right back after arriving at a bargain price; Angeliño is the wild card of the bunch; and Oleksandr Zinchenko has been up to the test when called upon in the past.
With all of that said, Man City’s safest path to having one of the PL’s best defensive records yet again lies ahead of the backline. When — not if, but when — they’re able to dominate possession each and every game, City’s midfield and forward line will squeeze the life out of opponents and leave the three, or four, at the back with precious little to do.
Defensive midfielder Fernandinho was arguably City’s most important player in 2018-19 but he began to show signs of slowing down toward the end of last season, so they were wise to sign Rodri from Atletico Madrid for $78 million. It’s true that Kompany’s departure leaves a broad hole in the backline, but Rodri, along with the embarrassment of attacking talent ahead of him, should more than make up for his absence and give City a real shot at back-to-back-to-back PL titles.