Manchester City’s centre-back partnership of Nicolas Otamendi and John Stones will cost them the Premier League title, according to Gary Neville. Meanwhile, Jamie Carragher believes Otamendi has never been good enough for the club – and Stones is fighting for his City career.
Pep Guardiola’s centre-back pairing struggled badly during City’s shock 3-2 defeat to Norwich at Carrow Road on Saturday evening and the reigning champions are already five points adrift of leaders Liverpool.
With Vincent Kompany having departed in the summer and Aymeric Laporte out with a long-term injury, Guardiola is faced with the prospect of relying on Otamendi and Stones. But Carragher believes that is a situation that will continue to undermine Manchester City.
“He dives in, he has done it all his career,” Carragher said of Otamendi when speaking on Monday Night Football.
“He will never change and that’s why he’s not good enough to play for Manchester City. I have never believed it from day one and nothing I have seen in the last four or five years has changed my mind.
“John Stones, in some ways, over the next three or four months, is almost fighting for his Manchester City career in that, if it doesn’t go well for him they are going to buy someone.
“I think what City have now in terms of centre-backs is what I call big brother and little brother.
“Now at Liverpool, Virgil van Dijk is the big brother and Joel Matip is the little brother. Matip without Van Dijk does not look the same. With Van Dijk, he’s calm and he’s confident with the big fella next to him. It’s like when your ma lets you go to the shops with your big brother, you’re OK, you’re safe.
“Pep Guardiola has got two little brothers playing at centre-back. They have got no help. Laporte is not there to help. Kompany is not there to help.
“At this moment, I don’t think Guardiola wants to put those two on the pitch together but he has got no option because he has not gone big in the summer.”
Neville believes that Guardiola decided long ago that Otamendi and Stones was not the answer – and expects Manchester City to suffer the consequences if they are forced to return to the partnership for any length of time.
“Guardiola gave up on this partnership 18 months ago when Laporte came to the club,” Neville told Monday Night Football.
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“Otamendi always gets caught out as a centre-back and quickens up the opposition in attack. He’s so not a Pep Guardiola type centre-back, they’re usually composed but he’s rash.
“Sir Alex Ferguson at times during his Manchester United career would see a game too far with players and say, ‘that’s it, you’re done’. Manchester City’s 4-3 defeat at Liverpool in 2018 was the game when Guardiola decided that Stones and Otamendi couldn’t play together.
“Laporte’s injury, Kompany leaving and not replacing him is a big problem for Manchester City. Stones and Otamendi have played 25 games under Guardiola in the Premier League.
“They’ve conceded more goals than any other partnership, conceded more goals per game, the clean sheets are down, the three plus goals conceded is well up and then there’s the big one, lower win percentage.
“That will cost Manchester City the Premier League title. If these two play together at their current rate of performance they won’t win the league.”
What is the solution?
Guardiola has options in his squad and both Neville and Carragher expect him to search for an alternative solution – but they disagree on what that will be.
“He has always surprised us, he has always shocked us, he has always done what would be unexpected,” said Neville. “Pep Guardiola doesn’t accept what he has, he always tries to come up with new systems.
“I can see that Pep Guardiola is not just going to sit back over the next three months. Already in the back of his mind he will be thinking that he needs a plan B here that can give them domination of the ball and defensive stability.
“He won’t do this because Pep Guardiola will never do what we expect, but he has played a back five before.
“I know the boy Joao Cancelo pretty well, I had him at Valencia. He can play right wing-back perfectly and Oleksandr Zinchenko is suited to wing-back. Walker has played in a back three for England and Otamendi has two people to cuddle him.
“That is a potential option, but at the moment I think he is thinking of a plan B.”
Carragher is expecting something very different.
“I don’t think he will do that,” he added. “I don’t think he is a three at the back man with wing-backs. He does it the Dutch way, 3-4-3 with a diamond.
“But I think somebody you have got to look at is Fernandinho coming into the equation and going back to centre-back. I think that is something that he will look at.
“You don’t want to go away from that 4-3-3 because it is a machine. I don’t think they should rip that up. I think the solution for now is to go to Fernandinho.”
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