How do you solve a defensive injury crisis? It is a question Pep Guardiola has been grappling with ever since Aymeric Laporte’s knee buckled during Manchester City’s 4-0 win over Brighton in August. But it seems he finally has his answer. If in doubt, simply don’t use any defenders at all.
Against Crystal Palace on Saturday, with Nicolas Otamendi joining the absentee list and John Stones left on the bench, Guardiola deployed a centre-back pairing of Fernandinho and Rodri, flanked by Benjamin Mendy and Joao Cancelo, two full-backs better known for their attacking than their defending.
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It seemed daring, especially for a potentially awkward assignment, but what does it matter when his side can control a game as convincingly as this?
For all their injury problems, for all the enforced changes to their backline, Manchester City rarely looked like conceding. In fact, the 2-0 scoreline could easily have been far worse for Crystal Palace. City scored twice in the space of 93 first-half seconds but they should have added several more.
No defenders, no matter
Fernandinho and Rodri did have awkward moments, the latter almost allowing Wilfried Zaha a clear run at goal with an inopportune slip midway through the first half, but for the most part they did their jobs with little fuss, helping City keep only their second clean sheet in their last five Premier League games and put the 2-0 loss to Wolves behind them.
Rather than hinder City, the presence of two midfielders at the heart of the defence actually helped them, their ball-playing ability allowing Guardiola’s side to dominate the from back to front.
Ilkay Gundogan occupied the holding role but Rodri and Fernandinho were the deep-lying playmakers, completing 87 passes in the Palace half between them and spreading the play beautifully for Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva in the wide positions.
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The moment which best illustrated the value of having central midfielders in defence came in the build-up to City’s second goal, when, on the edge of his own box and with one impeccable touch, Rodri simultaneously intercepted Jordan Ayew’s pass and found the feet of David Silva, who started the counter-attack he would eventually finish himself.
There were eye-catching defensive contributions too. After 19 minutes, Fernandinho had Manchester City fans on their feet when he sprinted towards the left-back position to snuff out a Crystal Palace counter-attack in front of the away end. Then, with 15 minutes remaining, Rodri was there to make a vital block from Patrick van Aanholt.
Jesus makes his mark
Fernandinho and Rodri were not the only ones to make their mark on the game, of course. At the other end, there was Gabriel Jesus, picked ahead of Sergio Aguero and justifying his inclusion with a fine performance. The Brazilian’s goal, headed home from Bernardo Silva’s cross, was his seventh in his last seven starts and took him to 50 for City in total.
He has reached the landmark quietly, but if his current form continues then Aguero’s status as Guardiola’s first-choice striker may soon be under threat – if it is not already. City have won all five of the games in which Jesus has started this season, scoring 16 goals in the process.
He was a constant threat here and should have scored more than once. He had eight shots in total and created two chances too. On top of that, there was the tireless energy which forced Crystal Palace defenders into mistakes and the selfless running which opened up spaces for team-mates.
De Bruyne makes a difference
Guardiola’s options may have been limited in defence, but he could at least call on Kevin De Bruyne in midfield following his return from injury.
City learned to cope without the Belgian last year, powering their way to the title despite his long spells out, but it is no coincidence that the two Premier League games they have lost this season have been the only ones he has not started.
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It is a testament to just how good he has been lately that he has already become crucial to them again. De Bruyne came into this game having scored two goals and provided eight assists in just 531 minutes in the Premier League this season, and while he did not add to those tallies at Selhurst Park, his influence on the game was not insignificant.
He was involved in more or less every attack, popping up in deep positions to dictate the play at times and charging into the opposition box at others. Sometimes, he combined both. It was his driving run from deep in his own half which set the wheels in motion for City’s second goal.
De Bruyne was unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty in the second half and hit the inside of the post with a header not long after that, but on this occasion he did not need goals or assists to provide a reminder of his importance to this side. The standing ovation from the travelling fans which greeted his substitution was proof of that.