Who will play center-back for Man City? Six solutions to Pep Guardiola’s injury crisis as Premier League title race takes twist
ETIHAD STADIUM, MANCHESTER — Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola hailed the “perfect afternoon” after his team thrashed Newcastle 5-0 to go three points clear of Liverpool at the top of the Premier League.
But if that sounds like a decisive move in the title race with three-game remaining, Guardiola then laid bare the extent of a defensive crisis that gives Jurgen Klopp and his players reason to keep believing after their 1-1 slip-up against Tottenham on Saturday.
“[There are] big problems behind because we have just three defenders for these three games but we will do it,” he said after Ruben Dias (hamstring) was replaced at half-time at the Etihad Stadium. The City boss confirmed his team has seen the last of the Portugal centre-back this season, and both John Stones (thigh) and Kyle Walker (ankle) are done as well.
“Kyle and John it is the end of the season, Ruben end of the season. Next pre-season, maybe they will be ready,” Guardiola said.
“We have 13 [outfield] players and a half available for these three games, plus the academy. When that happens, everyone has to do more, or it will not be enough – more and more to help with the absences and the problems we have.”
In this situation it is not a problem. If Rodri has to play in that position it is not a problem, or if it’s someone from the academy. pic.twitter.com/bMR47RcCOM
— Manchester City (@ManCity) May 8, 2022
As a precaution, Aymeric Laporte made way for CJ Egan-Riley to make his Premier League debut during the closing minutes against Newcastle and that might not be the last time we see the youth team graduate before the end of the season.
Alongside Laporte, full-backs Joao Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko make up the trio of fit senior defenders Guardiola has at his disposal. So how might he solve his quandary at centre-back as we reach the climax of the season?
Here, Sporting News lays out Guardiola’s options ahead of Wednesday’s trip to Wolves.
There was a little puzzlement in the stands and across the press box to see Netherlands international Ake looking on as an unused substitute during Egan-Riley’s unexpected debut. After an injury-ruined first season at City, the 27-year-old has impressed this time around across 26 appearances in all competitions.
However, after revealing the Walker, Dias and Stones news, Guardiola explained Ake’s place on the bench was strictly an emergency measure because the left-footed defender has not shaken off the ankle problem he aggravated during a goalscoring outing at Leeds last weekend.
“I don’t think so Nathan for Wolves but maybe the next one,” Guardiola added, meaning next Sunday’s trip to West Ham is a theoretical return date.
It was initially surprising to see Ake remain in the dugout at the start of the second half when Fernandinho came on for Dias. Now 37, the former Brazil international will leave City at the end of the season but showed his enduring worth with a brilliant clearance to deny Callum Wilson on the end of an Allan Saint-Maximin cross.
City’s failure to secure a replacement for Vincent Kompany, a long-term knee injury for Laporte and form and fitness struggles for both Stones and Nicolas Otamendi meant Fernandinho played much of the 2019/20 campaign in the heart of the defence. It was fair to assume those days had gone but circumstances mean he is now favourite to start alongside Laporte at Molineux.
Fernandinho performed well when called upon against Newcastle, flying in to make headed clearances and proving calm in possession.
“Honestly, in this situation, it is not a problem. If Rodri has to play in this position he will play,” Guardiola continued as he thumbed through his threadbare options. Rodri has done the job before on a handful of occasions and his aerial prowess – demonstrated once more with City’s third goal against Newcastle – makes him well suited, more so than his mobility.
The problem with this is it would mean someone having to replace Rodri in defensive midfield, where he has been one of City’s stand-out players this season and established himself as one of the finest operators in front of a back four in Europe. Ultimately, you’d rather the Spain international protecting a makeshift defence than being in one.
RODRIGO 💬 We showed the personality we have. It was incredible for us.
Football is like this, you have to wake up. You have to stay focused on the Premier League.
Now we are three points clear, but we’re still in the fight. pic.twitter.com/8VeG4KHHgn
— Manchester City (@ManCity) May 8, 2022
Egan-Riley had a couple of scampering Newcastle attacks to help snuff out and the 19-year-old will surely delight in telling anyone who will listen that it was only 3-0 when he came on. He was a transformative presence on his Manchester City league debut!
Comfortable at centre-back or right-back, Egan-Riley made his senior bow in the latter position against Wycombe Wanderers in the Carabao Cup earlier this season. He also started at full-back as City entertained Sporting CP in the Champions League last-16, bolstered by a 5-0 first-leg lead. The pressure at Molineux and London Stadium will certainly be a few degrees higher.
Premier league debut and a win! Gotta keep pushing 😁💙 pic.twitter.com/0xvFC3aa5h
— CJ Egan Riley (@CJEganRiley) May 8, 2022
Guardiola broke into something of a giggle when asked how important Fernandinho will be over the remainder of the season. “Well, I would say a lot, otherwise I have to play CJ or Luke Mbete,” he said. Mbete was also on the bench at the weekend and has been a fixture in first-team squads over the past 18 months.
It was therefore perhaps a touch surprising to see Egan-Riley preferred to the elegant and powerful 18-year-old. This might boil down to the simple fact of him being left-footed – much like the still-fit Laporte. Ake is also left-sided – while the right-hand side of defence is where options are decimated. Also, as much as there was a testimonial feel at times against Sporting, Mbete is behind Egan-Riley when it comes to competitive minutes at the elite level.
Burns made up an all-teenager back four in the 6-1 win against Wycombe, alongside Egan-Riley, Mbete and left-back Josh Wilson-Esbrand. Instead of bolstering Guardiola’s first-team squad, he was sent on loan to Swansea in January.
The 18-year-old Londoner only made three league appearances so, with the Championship season now over, he at least returns to Manchester relatively fresh. Burns could feasibly make the bench in the event of Egan-Riley or Mbete starting.