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Choose Your Version of Kyle Walker

The Blues can’t afford to be anything but their best for the rest of season, but what is Kyle Walker’s best role to make that happen?

Newport County AFC v Manchester City - FA Cup Fifth Round Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images

Manchester City are a team blessed with tremendous depth, which has led to an ongoing discussion on what lineup/tactical choices Pep Guardiola should make. Yet that discussion rarely seems to address the right back position, where Kyle Walker has been a staple for the past two seasons. Aside from a brief stretch earlier this season, the 28-year-old Englishman has been fantastic in a City kit and his place in the starting eleven is deservedly secure.

However, Walker has been deployed quite differently when you compare last season to this one, and that is where the discussion should focus regarding the right back.

Last season, Guardiola utilized Walker’s best asset, his pace, to its maximum effect by unleashing him down the right flank without abandon, culminating in 7 assists in all competitions despite not being a great crosser. His ability to be equal parts defender and winger was a big reason why the Blues went on to be the best team the Premier League has ever seen.

City’s attacking tactics have shifted since then though and now Walker has instructions to play with far less offensive ambition (1 assist in all competitions). His current priority is to maintain a deeper position, whether it be as a traditional/inverted fullback or temporary outside center back. The Blues won’t be reaching 100 points again this year, but it’s quite obvious their quality has maintained with this new iteration of Walker.

Despite the change, Walker still makes some overlapping runs this season, but is doing so primarily as a reminder to the opposition that he can, forcing them to account for it. That isn’t to say he’s not contributing on offense, Walker’s ability to maintain possession and switch the play is still valuable in supporting the attack from the periphery. But the way he’s playing now is a far cry from the style by which he made his name on and as a result, his attacking statistics have taken a hit now that he has a diminished presence in the final third.

Kyle Walker’s attacking statistics from 2017-18 (left) and 2018-2019 (right) in Premier League matches compared to a league average right back.

Through in through, Walker was easily the best attacking right back in England in 2017-18. The strength of that argument has dwindled this year however. His expected goal buildup (total xG of every possession involved in) and expect goal chain (total xG of every possession involved in excluding shots/key passes) numbers per 90 minutes are still incredibly strong, but have decreased from best among right backs to simply elite. However, his expected assists and key passes per 90 minutes have been reduced to the point where Walker is now below league average in those categories. His dribbling rate, not shown above, has similarly cratered, going from 1.50 dribbles attempted per 90 in 2017-18 down to 0.90.

The corresponding effect of sacrificing Walker’s offensive prowess is that City’s backline can maintain its structure in transition, thus reducing the need for mad recovery scrambles against counter attacks. Because of this, some of Walker’s defensive numbers are down too (tackles and aerial duels per 90), yet that change is a function of the tactics in use instead of a drop in form. Walker has been much more involved in the counter press and the team defensive metrics have shown no significant changes from last season. The question we’re presented with is whether the individual changes we’re seeing in Walker’s game/numbers are what’s best for Manchester City.

The effected his tactical role has on City’s attacking/defensive balance leads to a legitimate discussion to be had about the best way to use Kyle Walker.

One argument maintains that his inability to consistently provide accurate service into the box limits the entire offense and giving him a conservative role gives more freedom to City’s midfielders going forward. His pace and physicality can then be put to better use on the defensive side of the ball.

The other side would argue his pace is a tool that can be used to stretch the defense vertically and shunting that is a waste of Walker’s best skill. Overlapping runs on the right would create space for City’s wide attackers and fits well with Bernardo/Mahrez’s predication on cutting inside on their left foot. On top of that, his speed allows him to recover in transition, regardless of how far forward he pushes in the attack.

Both are legitimate arguments so there is no wrong answer really, which is the best part about the whole thing. Furthermore, there doesn’t need to be a definitive choice either, Guardiola can certainly adjust his tactics depending on the opponent and game state to integrate both if warranted.

Regardless, Manchester City have proven to be an incredible team in whatever tactical role Walker plays. But with three more trophies still in play and the title race so close, it is a debate worth having because the margin of error is as thin as it can get. Pep Guardiola needs to squeeze every last ounce out of this team if they want to fulfill the ambitious goals they’ve set for themselves this season, and the way he uses Kyle Walker may be a factor in tipping the scales in their favor.