The key tactical decision which suggests this Man City’s star’s days are numbered
and live on Freeview channel 276
It’s not exactly an unusual occurrence for a ripple of shock to pass through the Etihad press room on a matchday when the teams are announced an hour before kick-off, but even for Pep Guardiola’s standards, Wednesday’s starting line-up against Arsenal was surprising.
Nathan Ake’s absence meant there was always going to be a reshuffle at the back for Manchester City, with the Dutchman carrying out a key role since the season’s post-World Cup resumption. Prior to Wednesday, Ake had missed just one Premier League game since club football got going again in December - that was at home to relegation-threatened Leicester City - and the City no.6 has played all four knockout Champions League matches this season.
Ake’s suitability for version 7.0 of Guardiola’s intricate tactical model at the Etihad has been a key factor in City’s resurgence since February, with the discussions now centring around whether the Erling Haaland-propelled edition is perhaps the greatest yet. Ake’s defensive solidity, positional sense and composure on the ball have been vital for City in 2023 and he carries out a unique role in the team that sees him shuffle from left-back to the heart of defence in a moment’s notice.
It’s why there was such intrigue about how the Blues would line up without the former Bournemouth man, who is out with a hamstring injury and could miss the Champions League double header against Real Madrid next month. Guardiola promised to ‘find the right player’ when asked about replacing Ake ahead of the game, but few could have believed it would be Manuel Akanji who would come in at left-back.
The Swiss defender has operated mainly at the heart of defence since joining from Borussia Dortmund, or occasionally on the right hand-side, but never previously at left-back. Indeed, when the line-ups were revealed and the four defenders named were Kyle Walker, John Stones, Ruben Dias and Akanji, there was a general stretching of heads around the Etihad.
Would it be a three-man defence, or Walker or Bernardo Silva at left-back? Yet Guardiola’s decision to revert to a traditional back four worked wonders as City minimised Arsenal’s attacking threat, played direct into Haaland and exploited the space in behind the Gunners’ defence via Kevin De Bruyne’s penetrative runs.
A 4-1 win doesn’t tell the full story of City’s dominance; it could have been 5-0 before the break. While Haaland and De Bruyne’s intricate link-up play will attract the majority of headlines, the impressive displays of Walker and Akanji were pivotal to the team’s success on Wednesday, as Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli struggled to make any real impact on the game.
Akanji in particular was a masterstroke from Guardiola, another example, if needed, of how his penchant for overthinking does have its undeniable benefits. But it does raise questions about the long-term future of one of one City star: Aymeric Laporte.
A left-footed centre-back capable of playing at left-back seemed like the ideal replacement for Ake, who could slot seamlessly in to replace the 28-year-old and allow City to continue with the same tactical set-up as recent weeks. Instead, Guardiola went for the unorthodox option of Akanji, and reinstated Walker, a player who just a few weeks ago the City manager claimed didn’t fit into this tactical iteration.
“I had a lot of doubts because that position is for Ayme,” Guardiola admitted after the game. “In that position, Ayme is the best player in the build-up, by far. But after seeing Manu Akanji against Bayern Munich, against [Kingsley] Coman, Leroy [Sane] and [Jamal] Musiala, how he won the duels one against one was amazing. I thought against Saka and Martinelli was so important with Kyle and him winning that connection, the runners and being so aggressive with them.”
While Guardiola may claim his decision not to start Laporte was based on Akanji’s merits, there’s no denying that the former has lost his way at City. Laporte, who has been linked with a summer move to Barcelona, is routinely omitted for the biggest games and he’s not been selected to start in a single knockout Champions League game this term. Since the World Cup, Laporte has also been selected to start just four league matches, against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Leicester.
Injuries have impacted his 2022/23 campaign but it’s remarkable how quickly Laporte, who was once described by Guardiola as the greatest left-sided centre-back in the world, has fallen down the pecking order. With Dias, Stones, Ake and Akanji firmly established as Guardiola’s go-to defenders it’s hard to see a way back into the side for Laporte and a summer transfer seems inevitable at this stage.
The Arsenal win was significant in so many ways, as City took a giant step towards a third consecutive league title on a night that felt like the end point of Guardiola’s tactical development and rejigging over the season. Yet, those alterations appear to have passed Laporte, a four-time league winner, by. He will probably earn a fifth winner’s medal in May but it seems almost certain to be his last in Manchester.