Deep Pockets Make Deep Squads

During Manchester City’s second drubbing of Tottenham Hotspur this season, at White Hart Lane this time, their standard unremitting attacking performance was marred by a hamstring injury to the jewel in their crown, Sergio Aguero. The disruption was even more jarring because Aguero had been terrorising the Spurs defence, hitting the post, making countless untrackable runs in behind, winding dribbles, every one strengthening the pulsating, predatory aura he conveys in the final third. It was suddenly extinguished just before half time, an injury likely to keep Aguero out for a month. For most teams it would be a significant blow to have your top scorer and attacking talisman crocked for a handful of games, including a massive fixture against Barcelona in the Champions League fourth round. Look at the troubles Manchester United had when Van Persie was out injured for a comparable period.

Why it isn’t as significant a blow as one might think, the point I hope to illustrate, was actually illustrated for me quite nicely in the 78th minute of that same match against Tottenham. In that minute, after an even stronger second-half attacking performance, Steven Jovetic, the Montenegrin international and £22 million signing in the summer, scored City’s fourth goal of the game. Apart from the goal being quite good, albeit taking a tricky deflection to bamboozle Lloris, it showed that the quality of depth for the world’s richest club (entirely expected by the way, but still astounding) is such that Aguero’s injury barely slowed them down. At almost every position there is a world class player, with a world class understudy waiting in the wings for a chance. They have the strongest squad in the league, arguably the strongest squad ever assembled. After spending close to a billion dollars since Sheik Mansour bought the club, a glance down the playing roster shows how well that money has been spread over each position.

Goalkeeper
          1st Choice: Joe Hart
            2nd Choice: Costel Pantilimon.
 
       photo joehart_zps40dd929c.gif
      An image of stability.

Joe Hart is easily the best English keeper, firm first choice for the national team and, after a shaky period earlier in the season where he was benched for seven games, has resolidified his place in the City team. The mental lapses that justified that spell of inaction are the main aspect of his game that raises concerns  (a tendency to rush out unnecessarily sticks out), but, at only 26, the experience that should eradicate the tendency for such lapses is all still in front of him.

Costel Pantilimon is perhaps the weakest 2ndchoice player in the squad, but even then, with 16 senior caps for Romania at age 27 (still young for a keeper), he performed admirably in the seven game period when he was called upon by Manuel Pellegrini. Pantilimon kept three cleans sheets out of those seven matches and gave no reason for the manager to drop him. Few backup squad members get as little time on the field as a backup keeper, and having barely made an appearance for City last season, Pantilimon showed great ability to shake off the dust that had gathered on that 2.2 metre frame.

Right Back
          1st Choice: Pablo Zabaleta
          2nd Choice: Micah Richards
 
       photo zaba_zpsda8ccfbe.gif
      He’ll be there, during the Pabhigh’s and the Pablo’s. Ahem, Cough…

Pablo Zabaleta was the last signing the City made before the Mansour takeover. He was bought at what now would be a snip at £6.45 million. He is arguably the most reliable player on City’s roster, consistently performing aptly, in all aspects of the game. With 5 assists (the most for a defender in the league) in 19 games started this year, he is a weapon going forward, but this does not take away from his diligence defensively; he is also currently 4thin the league for average tackles.
Micah Richards lack of appearances this season is down much more to Zabaleta’s consistency than to his own shortcomings. He is still fairly young, 25, and has made 13 first team appearances for England, scoring once. Incredibly strong and physical, he tirelessly patrols the flank, working so hard that he sometimes commits to far forward. His composure needs to be improved but no one can doubt his ability and commitment, and even with the vast amounts of money spent on bringing players in from abroad, it is a credit to his ability that Richards has managed to come through into the first team from the youth ranks at City.

Centre Backs
          1st Choice: Vincent Kompany
          1st Choice: Matija Nastasic
          2nd Choice: Joleon Lescott           
          2nd Choice: Martin Demichelis
 
       photo vincentkompanytackle-thumb-500x271-3005_zps613bc1e8.gif
      Wilshere being Belgian-bundled over.

Vincent Kompany is the captain of the team, he consistently is strong and steady at the heart of the defence, and over the last 3 seasons has produced countless inspirational performances. He drives the team forward and marshals the defence. He has made the most appearances of all the centre backs in the squad, despite a stretch on the sidelines. He is the captain of Belgium, one of the most exciting and dynamic national squads around, and is still only 27. He is the first name of the team sheet. His first choice defensive partner is a little less clear cut. Both Nastasic and Demichelis have made the same amount of appearances this term and they’ve both performed well enough to be the first choice for the other centre back spot. Nastasic gets it as he is by far the younger of the two, has been at the club longer and is probably the better player. He is, at only 20, less prone to gaffes, is quicker on his feet, and is very much a ball-playing central defender. He has 13 caps for Serbia and is only going to get better for City.
The two understudies are both experienced internationals as well, Lescott for England and Demichelis for Argentina. At one point Lescott was the first choice centre back for both City and England but has since fallen down the ranks at both. After moving for a suspected £22 million to City from Everton, Lescott established a reputation as a hard-hitting, physical centre half, who would recklessly put his body on the line for his team. Frustrated with his lack of first team play, Lescott was coveted by many clubs this January, only to stay put in Manchester. Demichelis likewise has had a distinguished career, spanning stays at River Plate, Bayern Munich and Malaga. Although at the tail end of his career, he was considered good enough to be brought by his old Malaga manager, Pellegrini, to City this season, and has played regularly without calamity. He played every game of Argentina’s 2010 World Cup campaign, ending in the quarter finals and in the City squad is second only to Fernandinho for interceptions made per game this season.

Left Back
          1st Choice: Aleksander Kolarov
          2nd Choice: Gael Clichy
      
      
      Serbing up a plate of gollazzo!

This season has been a year of revolution at the left back position. For the last two season, Clichy has held down the left back position comfortably, after all he is an experienced player with 20 senior caps for France to his name, as well as a Premier League winners medal. But this season Kolarov has outshone Clichy, seemingly a revelation under Pellegrini. Kolarov’s attacking assets from the dead ball have always been there, often taking free kick duties when playing last season, but this season he has made an unexpected impact from open play, behind only his team mate Zabaleta for assists from a defender this season with 4. He also has a goal to go with them, in 13 appearances. He has a huge 45 caps for Serbia and is yet to turn 30.

Central Midfield
          1st Choice: Yaya Toure
          1st Choice: Fernandinho
          2nd Choice: Javi Garcia
          2nd Choice: Jack Rodwell
 
      photo tourestrike_zps371567d0.gif
      Toure-fic strike from the Ivorian.

The engine room of City’s team, their rumbling source of forward momentum is their midfield, an area ruled by the dual enforcers, Yaya Toure and Fernandinho. Similar players in many ways, they both have the presence to compete physically in the combat of midfield, as well as possessing the more refined and essential passing skill set. Toure is perhaps more unstoppable when he gets some forward momentum going, like a juggernaut crashing through walls of defenders to bloot the ball nearly through the net, and he has a new addition to his arsenal, a certain dead-eye from dead ball situations (a skill upon which he has worked hard. That’s not to say that Fernandinho doesn’t have a strong instinct for goal scoring, if just less forceful, he has 3 this term, to Toure’s impressive 12. Fernandinho is certainly more defensively mindful than Toure (who often can wander about, jogging in a leisurely fashion, lifting a lip with disdain to the runner he’s supposed to be tracking).
The two second choice central midfielders are less replacements than alternative options altogether. Jack Rodwell, let’s not forget, was one of the most promising young English talents in the Premier League before his transfer to City, but has been wracked mercilessly by injury since the move. He is thoroughly fourth choice but remains young and filled with potential . He even has 3 caps for England. Javi Garcia, who has a couple of caps for Spain, plays a more important role for the team than Rodwell, often coming on as a substitute to tighten up midfield when Toure begins to plod, or sometimes being deployed from the start as a shield in front of the back four, specifically designed to close down that key area outside the box. He did this to great effect away against Bayern in that incredible victory earlier in the season. Both understudies don’t function as like-for-like substitutes for the first choice two, rather they offer a less adventurous option, one that, due to City’s incredible attack, hasn’t been necessary all that often this term. It’s also pertinent to add that City’s pursuit of Porto’s Fernando indicates imminent strengthening in this area.

Attacking Midfield
          1st Choice: Jesus Navas
          1st Choice: David Silva
          2nd Choice: Samir Nasri
          2nd Choice: James Milner
 
       photo Silva_zpsedfe5787.gif
      He really is a polished player.

It’s difficult to assign an exact formation for City’s fleet-footed, mercurial attackers. According to WhoScored.com’s analysis of City’s formations this year, they have most regularly used a 4-4-2 (12 times), with Silva and Navas appearing most often on each flank. Obviously David Silva is not a traditional winger like Navas, and so drifts into more central positions, the area where he can affect the game most effectively. Navas is capable of doing the same, but is more comfortable using his blistering pace to make runs inwards from wide positions, behind full backs and centre backs, as well as operating traditionally on the touchline, whipping in crosses.  Alternatively, City have often played with a fluid set of three attackers behind the target man, Negredo, with Navas, Silva and Aguero scything through on goal, collecting the deft flicks that Negredo can provide. Whatever the structure, the pointy end of City’s line up has indeed been slicing through defences all season long, already racking up as many goals scored as they managed the whole of last season. Nasri, revitalised this season, provides the same trickery and vision as the other two, and is quickly losing the label he gained last season as all show and no pony. Milner, often derided as being a jack of all trades and master of none, silenced critics in that same game against Bayern, with a superlative performance of hustle, directness and explosive finishing. He can carry this section’s defensive responsibilities virtually on his own, duties often shirked by Silva and Nasri, and injects vital energy into late game situations as a substitute. All four have dozens of caps for their respective national teams.

Strikers
          1st Choice: Alvaro Negredo
          1st Choice: Sergio Kun Aguero 
          2nd Choice: Edin Dzeko
          2nd Choice: Steven Jovetic
 
       photo barton_zps82cfff5a.gif
      Joey’s thought of a cunning plan to stop him!

Here, at the top of the City formation, lie their most potent weapons, the jewelled twin blades, a stiletto and a machete; Aguero and Negredo. It is astounding how quickly they have gelled since Negredo’s summer arrival, and how emphatically they’ve brought the strike partnership, one big and one small, back into vogue. Aguero, with the exception of maybe Luis Suarez, is the most dynamic goal scorer in the league, unmarkable, constantly threatening, and deadly as a finisher. His low centre of gravity and blinding quickness make him impossible to knock off the ball and he has finely tuned the poaching instincts that enable him to, more often than not, arrive at the perfect time to tap in. Negredo, different in every way except quickness of mind and fleet of foot, is the perfect example of the neo-Target Man. Brutally strong and aggressive whether on the ball or in the air, able to play with his back to goal and lay off flicks or knock down crosses, but also possessor  of the technique to, say, bring down a high ball perfectly on his toe, or to put a dervish move on a defender then unleash an incredible shot, or even to hit a 25 metre through ball with the outside of his foot, if he needs to. They form the most formidable striking duo in the league and have a combined 24 goals in 32 starts. Steven Jovetic, the natural understudy to Aguero, has yet to be utilised fully this season, having been mostly out with injuries since his arrival from Fiorentina. Despite this, the Montenegrin has acquired a reputation for being as devilishly swift, as filled with scurrying menace, as Aguero. Edin Dzeko is equally talented as a goal scorer, 7 in 12 starts this season, and is often used as an effective impact substitute. Again, he is the natural understudy to Negredo, strong and powerful, with a cannon shot and fantastic positioning sense.

 

What have been the deepest squads of the last 10 or so years? The 2009 Barcelona team, the 2003 Madrid Galacticos, the 1999 Manchester United treble winners, the 2004-05 Chelsea team, all were mostly successful and expensively assembled but none have as much depth, as much tested quality at each and every position, as this current Manchester City squad.
 
Can you think of a squad who’s first and second team is as good as City’s?

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