Monday 12 March 2018 18:38, UK
Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola is rotating his central defenders. We take a look at the statistics behind his reasons why…
Fans are fond of speculating on their team's best starting line-up, but managers must be more flexible.
Pep Guardiola's comments about his team selection reveal that the Manchester City boss, whose side face Stoke on MNF, live on Sky Sports Premier League, intends to rotate his centre-backs on a game-by-game basis.
Guardiola explained why he had opted for Aymeric Laporte, his £57m signing from Athletic Bilbao, for the Premier League game against Chelsea after omitting him for the wins over Arsenal.
His words offered insight into the tactical details that determine his thought process.
"Chelsea sometimes plays 5-4-1 and sometimes plays 5-3-2," he said.
"If they play 5-3-2, maybe we make a build-up with three and defend with three at the back. If we defend with three at the back, on the left side, Laporte, because of his left foot, is maybe much better than Otamendi, for example, or John Stones. With Laporte, I can use both systems and set up better. In that game, that was the reason why.
"Maybe in another game there will be another one. For example, sometimes I play Nico and Vincent because they are both amazing at winning duels. Defensively, winning duels, both are perfect. In some games, I need that. In other games I need more of the build-up and, I don't know, I need more special details."
The statistics support the logic behind Guardiola's decisions. Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi win significantly more aerial duels than their younger rivals for the centre-back positions. Kompany and Otamendi win an average of 2.7 and 2.6 aerial duels per 90 minutes respectively, compared to Stones' 1.8 and Laporte with just one per game so far.
Kompany's return to fitness allowed him to partner Otamendi for both of the recent games against Arsenal. Guardiola's decision to name the same two centre-backs for those fixtures suggests that it was tactically motivated. In games where City look to build more from the back and beat the opposition press, he has been inclined to take a different route.
The passing accuracy of Manchester City's centre-backs provides a further clue as to why. While Otamendi and Kompany are reliable users of the ball, completing almost 92 per cent of their passes, Stones boasts the best passing accuracy in the entire Premier League - finding a team-mate with 96.3 per cent of his passes. Laporte is second on the list.
Perhaps this is an indication of the better build-up play to which he refers. For example, while Kompany and Otamendi's slightly lower passing accuracy is partly explained by the fact that they attempt more long passes, this does not mean they are better at it. Laporte has completed 80 per cent of his long-range passes compared to Otamendi's 65 per cent.
Indeed, Otamendi misplaces the most long passes per 90 minutes of the four City defenders with Laporte misplacing the fewest. As a result, when Guardiola believes that the key to his team's success will be retaining possession of the ball and progressing the play through the pitch, it appears that he correctly feels that the Frenchman is the man for this task.
Up against Stoke on Monday Night Football, it will be interesting to find out which specific qualities that the City manager believes are most important. Traditionally, the trip to the Potteries on a windy weeknight is the stuff of folklore and while Stoke are a different proposition these days, there remains the prospect of Peter Crouch making an appearance.
Only Burnley won more aerial duels against City last season. Guardiola may need Kompany and Otamendi to cope with this threat. Equally, while City won there last season, they did so with one of their lowest pass accuracies of the campaign. The Bet365 Stadium is not always conducive to flowing football despite the size of the pitch being increased in 2015.
Only Tottenham forced City into more misplaced passes last season and there are already three teams who have gone to Stoke and had a passing accuracy below 65 per cent this term. Again, only Spurs have seen more away sides fail to hit that mark. Will Guardiola turn to Laporte or Stones to combat this problem? What is clear is that he now has options.