It’s no secret Manchester City have had a defensive issue for some time. Ever since the partnership between Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott was broken up in 2012, the club hasn’t been able to get a unit that has looked consistently solid—aside from a short spell where Martin Demichelis overcame his poor form and worked well alongside the captain in 2014.
The club’s hierarchy has been aware of the issue too, with plenty of money being spent in an attempt to solve the issue. The likes of Matija Nastasic, Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi have all been brought in—for a combined total of nearly £85 million—and City’s defence is looking weaker than it has for a long time.
Having been regarded as one of the best centre-backs in La Liga in 2014-15—the season before he moved to the Premier League—Otamendi has shown none of the form for his new club that suggests he can be trusted to play in the position regularly. His debut year was erratic, and the signs, so far, are that nothing’s changed under Pep Guardiola.
As City spent last summer chasing John Stones, Aymeric Laporte and Leonardo Bonucci, it’s fair to say the new manager had misgivings about the defenders at the club. How much of that is down to their comfort in possession rather than their ability to defend is up for debate, though, as the Catalan was always going to be changing City’s style of play.
The club were successful in just one of those deals, with Stones making the short move from Everton for a reported £47.5 million. That takes the total outlay on defensive options past £130 million in the last four years, and yet the rearguard has been steadily getting worse—with the 3-1 defeat at home to Chelsea on Saturday highlighting yet more limitations.
Guardiola’s had his doubts about Otamendi for some time. Speaking after the Argentinian’s first match under his management, a 5-0 win at Steaua Bucharest, the Catalan wasn’t impressed with the defender’s aggressive style.
“I don’t like it when central defenders go down on the pitch,” he told reporters. “I don’t know about last season because I wasn’t here, but we are here to get him better. After the two penalties for us, a little situation is going to give away a penalty against us and we have to avoid that.”
Four months later, the Argentinian hasn’t stopped diving in and causing his team problems because of it. Some will put his performance in the loss to Chelsea down as a one-off, a poor display from a centre-back who normally puts his body on the line to try to keep the opposition from scoring.
However, his showing was more endemic of what he’s done consistently since he was signed at the beginning of 2015/16. He was all at sea positionally, overly aggressive in challenges and committing himself too high up the pitch.
In the early stages of the match, he picked up a booking for a needless lunge at Diego Costa. The City fans were aggrieved at the decision, but Otamendi should have been relieved the card wasn’t red—his studs were showing, and his attempt to win the ball was reckless, even if he didn’t make a lot of contact with the Chelsea forward.
The visitors should have taken the lead in the first half as Eden Hazard rounded Claudio Bravo, but the Belgian chose to square for Costa instead of shooting at the empty net. The situation came about from a long ball—and while many will rightly criticise the goalkeeper for leaving his line when he couldn’t have beaten the forward to it, the role Otamendi played in failing to stop the chance shouldn’t be dismissed.
He was caught under the ball as it was floated over the top; his timid leap from a flat-footed start got him nowhere near heading it clear, when he should have been able to.
Chelsea exposed that same weakness in the second half as Costa equalised. Again underneath the flight of the ball and unable to clear it, Otamendi was left twisting and turning as the striker took it under control brilliantly and slotted it home. The Spaniard swatted the City defender away like he was nothing more than an annoying fly.
Worse was to come. The Argentinian slipped into his default setting of committing himself to a challenge he couldn’t possibly win later in the second half, and it made Chelsea’s break to take the lead a lot easier. Of course, Otamendi has accomplices in allowing Willian to put the visitors ahead, but his desperation to nip in before Costa and steal possession on the halfway line set up the chance.
Instead of stepping back and guarding against the striker’s turn, he dove in and allowed Costa the freedom of the midfield. It was then a simple pass through to Willian, who was always going to outpace the sluggish Aleksandar Kolarov, before Bravo managed to be caught unawares by a shot everyone inside the ground could see coming.
With all of the criticisms of last season still fresh in the memory, it would seem like Otamendi hasn’t learned any lessons. He’s still going to ground too easily in dangerous areas, risking giving away fouls or being beaten far too comfortably by a canny forward, and he’s still overcommitting too high up the pitch.
Supporters like a strong tackle, and it’s great to see a defender clear everything in front of him when winning the ball. However, with the Argentinian, it rarely seems like he’s in control when he puts the full weight of his body into a challenge.
Since his arrival in the 2015 summer transfer window, Otamendi has looked like a red card waiting to happen—quite how he’s managed to avoid being dismissed in his season and a half with the club is a mystery. He’s been walking the tightrope of a second booking or a straight sending off on more than a few occasions.
Granted, Guardiola’s erratic selections haven’t made life easy for him—or any of the club’s defenders—as the manager has often switched between a back three and a back four, and he’s also swapped his personnel on a regular basis.
Yet Otamendi could make life easier for himself with a more controlled game. He’s more than comfortable enough with the ball at his feet to be able to play with Guardiola’s style, and his partnership with Stones has looked City’s strongest under the new manager. But there can’t be a place for him in the team if he’s going to continue being needlessly aggressive and a liability positionally.
Two clean sheets in the Premier League this season, across 14 matches, shows the extent of the club’s problems at the back. Despite the money that’s been spent on defenders in recent years, City need to dip into the transfer market again to solve it.
Heaping the responsibility of rebuilding a defence worthy of a title challenge onto youngster Tosin Adarabioyo would be unfair and could put him under undue pressure, while the options that are still at the club are consistently proving to be unreliable—whether that’s through injury or ability.
Right now, Otamendi is looking like nothing more than the next in a line of City’s expensive centre-back failures.