By James Nalton, Football Whispers
Nicolas Otamendi has started every game for Manchester City so far this season, but as the club look to improve on their slightly turbulent start to the new campaign Pep Guardiola may have some decisions to make at the back.
The Argentinian is regularly subject to criticism from fans, former players, and pundits alike, but continues to make the City starting eleven.
Part of the reason that he’s getting these games is that Guardiola trusts his other left-sided centre back, Eliaquim Mangala, even less. The French defender, signed from Porto for a fee which eventually rose to more than £40million once third parties had been paid, was loaned out to Valencia last season, but the club were unable to move him on in the most recent transfer window. Crystal Palace were interested but their first choice was Mangala’s compatriot Mamadou Sakho of Liverpool, who they were eventually able to sign.
Though Mangala is the only left-footed centre back in the club’s senior squad, Otamendi has a lot of experience playing on this side of the defence and seems to be the player Guardiola trusts the most in this role.
However, this trust doesn’t seem to be unwavering, and the club made a bid for West Bromwich Albion and former Manchester United centre back Jonny Evans as the transfer window drew to a close.
City’s failure to move Mangala on is thought to be the reason behind the collapse of this deal, but it shows that Guardiola and his staff are still not entirely happy with their options at centre back.
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Otamendi has come in for a considerable amount of stick during his time at the club, and after their 5-3 victory against Monaco in last season’s Champions League, their former centre back Richard Dunne gave a scathing summary of the defender’s performance.
“He has no awareness of where the players are when the game is going on around him,” the pundit told BT Sport after the game. “He’s just focused on the ball completely. It’s not good enough.”
Though Otamendi is has often been the subject of less than complimentary reviews, he’s remained Guardiola’s first choice on the left side of the defence going into the new season.
Even when the introduction of Benjamin Mendy at left back saw the team shift from a back three to a back four, Otamendi retained his place on the left with John Stones — who had acted as the sweeper in the middle of the back three — dropping out.
This suggests that Stones is either backup to the revived Vincent Kompany on the right or the first choice in the middle of at three, with only Mangala challenging Otamendi on the left. Had they signed Evans it may have been a different story, and the Northern Irishman will have at least provided more of a challenge in this position, and may have eventually made it his own.
That said, Stones has played on the left before, and as Guardiola is a fan of the Englishman he could eventually turn to him to partner Kompany.
During the first three games of this season Otamendi was one of the best players in the side according to WhoScored’s automated player ratings, but impressing an algorithm is one thing, and impressing in reality is another.
The 29-year-old’s defensive strengths are evident when he uses his anticipation to read passes, and while he’ll often read opposition intentions like a book, on the odd occasion he makes the wrong move and lets the opponent in behind him it can stand out like a sore thumb.
In attack, he’s reasonably good on the ball and has the ability to find attacking players with accurate long range passes, but like his risky defensive tactics, these ambitious balls can make him look bad if they don’t come off. A safer, more conservative defender may not be as effective in or out of possession, but would make fewer mistakes on the face of it.
Otamendi was just behind David Silva and Fernandinho when it came to total passes completed last season, which shows that when he does play he’s pivotal part of the team’s build-up play from the back.
But when it comes to opposition players who are plotting a the way to breach City’s back line, there’s an impression that Otamendi may be the weak link, especially now Kompany has returned to fitness and form on the other side.
There’s no doubt that the Liverpool forward line of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mane will be looking forward to facing the City defence in their upcoming game, and this isn’t a sign that any of the players in Guardiola’s back line are really dominant and reliable at this moment in time, not even his trusty South American.