Is Otamendi the answer to City’s defensive problem?

Manchester City’s signing of Nicolas Otamendi from Porto is one of the most significant captures of this transfer window. Manuel Pellegrini’s side had previously seemed determined to focus on strengthening the attacking section of the side, but there’s been an issue in the centre of defence for some time.

However, throwing money at the problem hasn’t always worked.

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City have acquired a new centre-back every summer since 2009, often at considerable expense. They started off with Joleon Lescott and Kolo Toure that summer, before signing Jerome Boateng the next year, then Stefan Savic, then they swapped him for Matija Nastasic.

Martin Demichelis arrived in 2013, Eliaquim Mangala the next summer, and now Otamendi joins. It’s a staggering outlay of £142m simply trying to strengthen one position, with Vincent Kompany remaining first-choice in the right-sided centre-back role.

Otamendi, however, is probably the best defender City have signed during this period.

Whereas the likes of Boateng, Savic, Nastasic and Mangala were still emerging (and City haven’t been particularly good at developing young talent in recent years) Otamendi is an established defender, arguably the best in La Liga last season and at the Copa America this summer.

Whereas Demichelis and Toure were probably past their best, at 27 Otamendi still has plenty of time left at the top.

From the initial list, that leaves only Lescott, and while he’s the least naturally talented defender on this list, he proved Kompany’s best partner stylistically. The younger players generally made mistakes and the older players lacked the pace to cover in behind, but Lescott was a steady, reliable, no-frills centre-back who probably went unappreciated during City’s title-winning campaign of 2011/12. He made a huge mistake in the final match of that season against QPR, which could have been crucial, but overall he was an extremely important member of the side.

That said, Otamendi is a very different type of defender. When he initially arrived in Europe he seemed somewhat cumbersome and overly aggressive for Porto, but he’s improved the positional side of his game and has become an extremely tough centre-back.

He retains that physical, aggressive edge, and while it’s rarer to see him diving into tackles, the main feature of his game at Valencia was his determination to man-mark opponents very tightly, most obvious during an outstanding performance against Karim Benzema during Valencia’s impressive 2-1 victory over Real Madrid in January. He might appreciate the more lenient refereeing in the Premier League, where players are allowed more contact with opponents than in La Liga.

Whether Otamendi will be allowed to play this way remains to be seen. Kompany has rightly been criticised for his positional errors over the past year, and he still seems frustratingly determined to dive into unnecessary tackles. He was booked in the 3-0 win over Chelsea last weekend for a ludicrous tackle on Diego Costa – not only was it horrendously timed, it was also tight to the touchline in the right-back slot with his opponent going nowhere.

It’s that willingness to be drawn out of position that makes Kompany a difficult player to find a natural partner for, and it’s not something the Belgian seems determined to change. It was strange to hear that Kompany had arrived back early after pre-season and concentrated on working on the gym, as if someone had said to him – “Honestly, Vincent, the one thing you really need to work on is your strength.” It’s the tactical side of his game which needs works.

Therefore Otamendi might have to change his game, playing a more reserved at the heart of the defence. He has the intelligence to adapt, but it’s simply not what comes naturally, and not how he’s impressed over the last 12 months. There are other things Otamendi will have to become accustomed to – City are continuing to play an interesting (and sometimes dangerous) offside line, where they refuse to retreat inside their own penalty box, instead holding their position on the 18-yard line, even when their opponents are in possession just a few yards away.

Still, it’s difficult to think of many players who have joined the Premier League as top-class centre-backs – Otamendi is up there with the likes of Jaap Stam and Ricardo Carvalho. If this latest partner for Kompany doesn’t work, City might have to consider whether it’s Kompany who is the real problem.

Posted in , Premier League, Zonal Marking | 2 comments

August 20th, 2015 by Michael Cox

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