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There’s No Such Thing As Too Many Midfielders

City’s injury crisis give them a unique opportunity to tactically innovate once again and recent developments in other sports may give them the confidence to take the risk.

Preston North End v Manchester City - Carabao Cup Third Round Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

There’ s been a running joke for quite some time that if Pep Guardiola could figure out a way to play a midfielder at every outfield position, he would. This idea has always been laughed off as the craziest of concoctions a mad scientist could cook up, but Manchester City’s unfortunate injury crisis may be pushing Guardiola closer to some realistic interpretation of this whimsical pipe dream.

With both starting center backs (Aymeric Laporte and John Stones) on the shelf, Guardiola has resorted to moving Fernandinho into central defense earlier than expected. He’s now operates alongside first choice left back Oleksandr Zinchenko, a natural midfielder who still plays in that position for his national Ukraine. That leaves Nicolas Otamendi as the lone senior center back on the current roster. He will undoubtedly be the number one central defender for the foreseeable future, but there may be an argument against that being the case given the Argentinian tendency for mistakes.

Should Pep instead fall into his tinkering mood and get weird? Why shouldn’t Guardiola continue the takeover his midfielders are currently having on City’s backline? It’s not too crazy to move Rodri back to center back too alongside Fernandinho is it?

Conventional wisdom may object strongly to this thought, but conventional wisdom has been proven quite often in recent memory. The sporting world has rewarded creative ways of thinking throughout its history and we are witnessing massive innovations taking place in several non-football leagues right now that could inspire Guardiola to try something out of the box. Let’s explore some of these examples to justify City’s own experimentation.

For decades, American football was a sport that elevated straightforward offenses that struck an even balance between running and throwing the ball. There was a perception that this balance was necessary and success was based on a formulaic approach, simply because that’s the way it had been for years. But just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved, and the National Football League began to realize this as a wave of new coaches from college and non-traditional backgrounds rose to prominence.

Starting with then Eagles coach Chip Kelly in 2013 up through current Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, the nature of offenses in the NFL have changed for the better. Gone were the days of generic play calling and predictability, replaced by schemes that exposed defenses by emphasizing misdirection, quick tempos, and run-pass option plays. These new offenses were so successful that nearly every team in the league is now moving toward these modern strategies that have forever changed the game.

Basketball has faced a similar revolution in the past decade, and the resemblance with the trends seen in the NFL is evident. The positions on a basketball court had been clearly defined for the majority of the game’s history, where a player’s size and skill set acted like a cookie cutter to easily categorize them into one of the five roles. That began to change in 2003 when Mike D’Antoni became the coach of the Phoenix Suns and flipped the script on traditional thinking that had pervaded the sport. Their offenses valued pace and space like no one had ever seen before, blitzkrieging teams on the fast break with an eye on getting a shot within 8 seconds of the possession, all while playing smaller-than-normal lineups.

But the Phoenix Suns were only the initiators of the transition that the Golden State Warriors ultimately perfected, starting with the hire of head coach Steve Kerr in 2014. All-time great shooters Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were simultaneously a byproduct and cause of the increasing value of the three-point shot. Having the shot-making ability to stretch the floor allowed Kerr to emphasize the best elements of D’Antoni’s offenses but didn’t require the breakneck speed. This occurred alongside a trend where individuals moved up a size in position, so players who used to be power forwards were now centers and players who used to be centers were essentially unplayable as the game outgrew their skill set.

There is no better example of this than the Warriors’ Draymond Green. At 6’7’’, he would have been considered a small forward 20 years ago and an undersized power forward 10 years ago. Yet in their most critical moments, he’s been the Warriors’ center alongside Curry and Thompson in lineups that are objectively the most lethal five man groups the game has ever seen. The NBA is now a league where centers are almost required to be able to pass and shoot three pointers while it’s not unusual to have someone 6’10’’ playing point guard, a far cry from where the game stood even a decade ago. Conventional thinking is now the minority and an era of “positionless” basketball has emerged in its place.

Yet upon their introduction, the revolutions in both American football and basketball were viewed as gimmicks that would fail in crunch time or trends that would quickly fade away. Those assumptions were incorrect yet more often than not, people have to see it to believe it, that’s just human nature. But these sports have progressed to a more advanced version of themselves as a result of these unconventional ideas.

That long winded soliloquy about the benefits of trying new things finally brings us back to Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. Though the comparisons between football and basketball/American football are not linear, the wheels of progress rotate the same nevertheless. Football has a long history of philosophical and stylistic upgrades that have advanced the game to where it is today and there is always another step that can be taken, similar to the recent changes in the NBA and NFL.

It only makes sense that Guardiola is the one to test the boundaries once again given the influence he’s had thus far. The velociraptors testing the fence in this scenario may be a potential City lineup where 7 out of the 10 outfield players are midfielders, with Rodri at center back and Bernardo on the right wing (for the sake of argument).

The collective voice within football will tell you voluntarily saturating the pitch with midfielders is a fool’s errand. But they would only hold that view because we haven’t seen it work before (to the best of my knowledge). Creativity always invites skepticism, don’t forget the pundits who said Guardiola’s style would never be successful in England, a stance that’s been proven to be stupid in hindsight. Doubts will return in full force if he decides to experiment with a Rodri-Fernandinho center back pairing. And the idea of that might sound crazy, but what if it works? What if dual defensive midfielders in central defense is the football equivalent of the read option in the NFL and Draymond Green at center in the NBA?

Ultimately, this progression will take place regardless of whether Guardiola clearly defines it for all to see or not. Similar to basketball, a move towards positionless play is gradually happening even if listed midfielders aren’t moved into the backline overnight, because the change is being initiated from the lowest levels of the youth development system. The desired makeup of a modern day center back looks a lot more like that of a midfielder than it ever has before and kids are being molded to reflect that.

As the game progresses to a point where every player throughout the team sheet has a midfield-type skill set, City have a chance to stay ahead of the learning curve either within their current circumstances if they jump the gun on this movement. Necessity breeds innovation and the injuries currently happening throughout Manchester City’s defense may be the catalyst that extends their dominance to a new level. Rodri and Fernandinho as a central defense pairing could a source for stress for many Blues out there, but it should be encouraged as a path that may raise this team’s ceiling even higher.

The more I think about it, why even stop at 7 midfielders out of 10 outfield players? Maybe Pep’s whimsical pipe dream isn’t so crazy after all.