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Does Left-back Continue to be Manchester City’s Problem Position? It’s Complicated.

Zinchenko absence highlights longstanding problem for Guardiola and company.

Shakhtar Donetsk v Manchester City: Group C - UEFA Champions League Photo by Matt McNulty - Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images

With the breaking news that Rodri and Oleksandr Zinchenko are set to miss City’s titanic clash against Liverpool in just over a fortnight came as a major blow to City supporters. Rodri has featured heavily early in this campaign since his summer arrival from Atlético Madrid, even performing admirably as a center-back since returning from the October international break.

His absence will force either İlkay Gündoğan to play regularly as the pivot (as he did late last season while Fernandinho was unavailable), or Fernandinho will need to return to playing his natural position (meaning Pep Guardiola will have little choice but to play Stones and Otamendi at the back).

Without question the issues at center-back have come into focus this season. With the departure of Vincent Kompany, as well as the long-term absence of Aymeric Laporte, City were expecting to rely on Stones and Otamendi to be their regular center-back pairing. However, poor performances and injuries for both have meant that Guardiola has had to try to find creative solutions in playing Fernandinho and Rodri at center-back.

It should be noted though that this has been the case at left-back throughout Pep’s time in Manchester. Now in his fourth season in charge, Guardiola has been able to reshape most of the team to fit his image. And it shows. At nearly every position there are world class players capable of playing in the style that Guardiola requires.

Yet, left-back has been the exception. The list of players to line up at left-back for Pep during his tenure is long, and includes as many natural midfielders as it does natural left-backs. In searching for the best solution to this problem position Guardiola has used Alexander Kolarov, Gaël Clichy, Fernandinho, Benjamin Mendy, Danilo, Fabian Delph, Aymeric Laporte, Oleksandr Zinchenko, and João Cancelo all at left-back.

It is worth mentioning that at times City have had good performances from some of these players. During the Centurion title-winning season of 2017-18 Fabian Delph had easily his best season in a sky blue shirt, finally finding a role at the club by reinventing himself as a fullback. Undoubtedly his experience as a central midfielder meant he was well suited to perform the unique duties of tucking inside when City are in possession, a tactic utilized by few other teams or managers.

Indeed, Zinchenko has been able to transition well into a left-back at City for that very same reason. And his performances and growth were rewarded with a contract extension this summer. However, one still gets the impression that Zinchenko is still not truly a fullback, but merely a midfielder moonlighting as one.

Ideally Zinchenko should no longer be needed as the first choice left-back, given that Benjamin Mendy is now healthy and fit once again. But Mendy hasn’t been very convincing yet since his return from his latest injury. One could simply chalk this up to him needing more matches to build up his form, and there would be merit to that point. However, it is also true that Mendy generally has looked out of place when you compare him to those in sky blue shirts that are on the pitch alongside him.

It is jarring to see a City player whose first touch and decision-making in possession are so suspect, because that has been been a rarity in recent seasons. Yet, now in his third season under Guardiola, Mendy seems no more comfortable with the ball than he did when he first arrived.

This is likely the reason Pep has experimented with using João Cancelo on the left side of defense recently, in spite of Cancelo being naturally right footed. There is also a possibility that Angeliño may get a chance as well. To this point he has only been trusted to play as a sub or start the odd League Cup match, but one would imagine City would not pay to bring him back to the club (as they did this summer) unless they believed he could contribute.

At the moment Zinchenko may well be Guardiola’s preferred choice at left-back, and at minimum Pep will wish he were an option for the match at Anfield. But in truth all four of these players are deficient in one area or another. Zinchenko sometimes struggles with his positional sense and marking. Mendy usually looks nervous in the build-up play. Angeliño lacks experience at the highest level. And Cancelo being right footed inhibits his ability to whip in crosses.

As always, the manager has the benefit of seeing all these players in training daily. In addition, the packed fixture schedule will necessitate rotation. So there should be enough chances to go around. Hopefully one of them will soon emerge and establish himself as the clear choice. As for the match against Liverpool, who plays will likely come down to two factors: form and availability. Whoever gets the call will need to be ready, he’ll have a big job. He’ll have to mark Mo Salah.