Manchester City players celebrate at the end of the English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Manchester City at the Emirates stadium in London.(AP)
Manchester City players celebrate at the end of the English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Manchester City at the Emirates stadium in London.(AP)

Centre-backs key to Manchester City’s record run

  • City have conceded 15 goals in the league this season. That figure itself has been skewed by the five they shipped against Leicester.
By Bhargab Sarmah
PUBLISHED ON FEB 22, 2021 11:44 PM IST

When Manchester City signed Portuguese centre-back Ruben Dias from Benfica late in September, just a couple of days after a 5-2 battering in the league at home by Leicester City, it seemed like John Stones’s days at the club were numbered.

Already behind in the pecking order in recent seasons, the arrivals of Dias and Nathan Ake in the summer transfer window seemed to signal Pep Guardiola’s aversion at using Englishman Stones as a first-choice centre-back. With a young centre-back in the squad in Eric Garcia, Stones’s prospects at the club didn’t look bright.

Since signing for City in 2016, Stones has struggled to cement his place in the side. It is hardly a surprise that he amassed more minutes in each of his last two seasons at Everton – 2044 in 2014/15 and 2778 in 2015/16 – than in any season at City (2013 minutes in 2016/17, 1305 in 2017/18, 1762 in 2018/19 and 1118 in 2019/20).

And yet, just a few months later, Stones has, alongside Dias, laid the foundation for City’s resurgence. Since their loss to Tottenham in the league in November, City have gone on a 25-match unbeaten run, one that has included 18 clean sheets. With Raheem Sterling scoring in the 1-0 win over Arsenal away on Sunday night, City also extended their winning run across all competitions to a record 18 games.

Unlike in recent seasons, City’s run hasn’t been powered largely by their attack. Even during title-winning campaigns, their ability to outscore opponents had helped them paper over cracks in defence. This time, it is their defence that has engineered their remarkable revival.

City have conceded 15 goals in the league this season. That figure itself has been skewed by the five they shipped against Leicester. They have 15 clean sheets in the league, 13 of which have come in the last 17 games. Last season, City had a total of 17 clean sheets. They had 20 in 2018/19, 18 in 2017/18 and just 12 in Guardiola’s first season in 2016/17.

While Aymeric Laporte has found himself in the teamsheet on a few occasions in recent weeks owing to Guardiola’s rotation policy, it is the duo of Stones and Dias that has largely taken over as the first choice centre-back pairing. In a team full of stars, they have marshalled the backline so well that it has managed to, in contrast to recent seasons, overcome deficiencies in City’s attack.

It has not helped City that they have missed, for significant parts this season, crucial attacking players in Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus. But with 50 goals in 25 league games, City are projected to finish with a total of 76 goals and an average of 2 goals a game this season. That is significantly lower than their numbers in the last three seasons: 106 goals in 2017/18, 95 in 2018/19 and 102 in 2019/20, at an average of 2.66 goals a game in those three seasons.

Injury to Ake in defence too proved to be a blessing in disguise for Stones, who has taken his opportunity with both arms after having started the season on the bench.

It is also testament to the incredible depth that City have in their squad. Take the midfield’s case for example. In the absence of the influential De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Phil Foden have supplied the creativity and goals from the middle of the park.

And that is where City hold the advantage over their rivals in the Premier League where they are 10 points ahead of competition. Liverpool’s title defence has collapsed in the absence of talisman Virgil van Dijk, while many would recall Manchester United’s struggles in the first half of last season when Paul Pogba was sidelined because of injury and before Bruno Fernandes was signed. Guardiola has made a team that can dominate opponents even without a few of their regulars.

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