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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Versatility of Manchester City's defenders delights Pep Guardiola

City on track for record-breaking season with their rearguard having conceded only three goals in first nine games

Both Pep Guardiola and Vincent Kompany have praised the versatile nature of the other defenders in Manchester City's backline. Getty Images
Both Pep Guardiola and Vincent Kompany have praised the versatile nature of the other defenders in Manchester City's backline. Getty Images

Five Manchester City goals generated one surprising statistic. Saturday’s rout of Burnley put them on course to score 110 Premier League goals this season. Which, to put it another way, is four more than last season’s record tally.

Yet the focus on the offensive can obscure the defensive. City have reeled off five consecutive clean sheets. They have only been breached three times.

They are on course to concede just 13. That would be another Premier League record and if it amounts to a small sample size, Pep Guardiola delighted in City’s frugality.

“We didn’t concede a shot on target,” he said. It was an outlier, but the reality is that, outstanding as Ederson is, the goalkeeper can often be a spectator. Their nine opponents have only managed 16 shots on target against City this season.

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No side has mustered more than three. Vincent Kompany, one of the centre-backs who shielded Ederson, argued it is a collective effort where the attack forms the first line of the defence.

“The strikers press from the front and make sure we recover the ball fast so we don't concede too many chances,” the captain said.

It suits Guardiola’s Cruyffian ethos of Total Football. So do the defenders’ constructive qualities.

Yet the goals against column tells a tale of their ability to protect Ederson. “We have four incredible central defenders,” said the City manager.

One of them, John Stones, occupied a third position of the campaign in the absence of the injured full-back Kyle Walker, who may return tomorrow against Shakhtar Donetsk.

“I congratulated him in the locker room because I know it’s not his position,” said Guardiola. “It’s good for the young players like John Stones that they learn to play in different positions.”

Kompany added: “Right-back, sometimes defensive midfield: who knows what his starting position is? He's an intelligent player with so much ability on the ball. He's a top, top centre half already but he's an even better one in the making. It's exciting.”

The Belgian spent his first season at City operating as a defensive midfielder and feels a grounding in other roles helps. He believes versatility has an added importance now in an era of flexible tacticians like Guardiola.

“It's more a requirement for the modern player,” he said. “Managers change formations all the time. You can't make more than three changes so you need to have players on the pitch who have flexibility and John epitomises that.

"If you have youth on your side, it's easier to see a player shift positions. I'd have been able to do it when I signed but with age you get more locked to a natural position. The manager has so many tools at his disposal it is frightening.”

Another of those tools is Aymeric Laporte, the outfield player to feature in most minutes for City this season. “He is so professional, so serious and he is playing at a good level,” Guardiola said.

And yet, despite that defensive record, it was notable he arrowed in on the Frenchman’s ability to aid attacks.

“He helped us to make our build-up quicker than we would play with a right footer in that position,” he said.

The left-footed Laporte has a 93.2 per cent pass completion rate this season, the fourth highest among Premier League players with six or more appearances. Third is City’s Ilkay Gundogan. Top is Stones, at 95.2 per cent.

If it shows a stingy defence is full of players with footballing qualities, it also illustrates that keeping the ball represents the best way of denying opponents chances. No one has had more possession than City this season. No one has conceded fewer goals.