Trudging off the pitch at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the weather was dull and the mood even more so. Manchester City’s title challenge appeared to have been over before it started. Slumped in 13th place and with three wins from their first eight matches, City were closer to the relegation zone than top spot.
Ten weeks, 12 matches and zero losses later, Man City are sitting pretty in first place. The emergence of Ruben Dias and John Stones’ redemption has provided the defensive structure for the blues to appear as title favourites. Scattered in-between the Citizens turn in form has been the absence of central defender and one time irreplaceable Aymeric Laporte.
Once a stalwart in Pep Guardiola’s back-line, Laporte’s position in the City side became uncertain after a string of injuries opened the door for an imperious Stones-Dias partnership to establish itself.
Heading into the new year reports of a rift between Laporte and Guardiola surfaced, suggesting that despite being fit, the defender was being left out of the squad intentionally. With the attention on Stones and Dias, the Laporte omission caused few problems and City were able to romp to a twelve game winning streak across all competitions.
Back from injury and now returning to full match fitness, Laporte offers the defensive cover, that in a season of ups and downs, could provide City with the stability needed to retain the Premier League title.
The centre back troubles faced by title rivals Liverpool has highlighted the importance of strength in that area of the pitch and the already two-time Premier League winner possesses the experience and nous to help City over the line.
Comfortable with starting attacks from deep with his incisive passing capabilities, Laporte is a quintessential Guardiola player. As a left-footer Laporte provides balance and his versatility allows him to slot amply in at left-back, a problem position for City.
The £57 million signing has shown in the past that when given a consistent run in the side, he can provide contributions to the attack too: in his most productive season as a blue, Laporte scored and assisted three times in City’s title winning 2018/19 campaign.
It will be impossible for players to play every minute this season. Fixture congestion means rotation will be crucial in sustaining positive results and with City still fighting on four fronts, Laporte won’t be starved of game time in the second half of the season. However, questions surrounding how he will fit into City’s system, given the dominance of Stones and Dias, still remain.
However, Pep Guardiola has previously been an advocate of a three-at-the-back formation, as demonstrated during his time as Bayern Munich manager, but the pieces to the jigsaw have eluded him so far during his time in East Manchester. Laporte could offer the key for Pep to introduce a three defender system to City – an idea flirted with in the final half-an-hour of their recent victory against West Bromwich Albion.
John Stones already has experience playing in a three, starring alongside Harry Maguire and City teammate Kyle Walker during England’s 2018 World Cup semi-final run and Ruben Dias seems to have passed every assignment faced during his fledgeling Premier League career. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the trio were to line-up next to each other in the coming weeks and see considerable success.
City’s commanding form has elevated them to the top of the Premier League table, level on points with arch-rivals Manchester United, but with the luxury of a game in hand. They’ve conceded just two goals since the 2-0 defeat to Tottenham and comfortably boast the best defensive record in the league.
Having emerged from a run of favourable fixtures against lower-half opposition relatively unscathed – the injury to Kevin De Bruyne aside – a pivotal phase of the season awaits the blues in the coming week.
A tricky Champions League round-of-16 tie against Bundesliga side Borussia Mönchengladbach is sandwiched between a complicated run of league fixtures, which will see City play four of the top six, including a trip to Anfield and a Manchester Derby, throughout February and early March. Throw in an FA Cup fifth-round matchup against Swansea for good measure and the significance of the next few weeks for City is clear to see.
Somewhat, remarkably Laporte is still yet to make his international debut and at 26-years-old time might be running out. Despite representing France at all youth levels from under-17 to under-21, he has never made a senior appearance. Such was the longevity of his time spent in Spain with Athletic Bilbao, Laporte gained eligibility to play for the Spanish national side, but is still without a cap.
It was expected Laporte would get his first cap for France in August 2019, but after sustaining a four-month long injury whilst playing for City, he was replaced and is yet to make a return. In a European Championship year, a strong stint in the City side and a season ending in silverware would catapult Laporte into contention to get a call up – something that will surely provide him with additional personal motivation.
If City are to enjoy a trophy haul come May, maintaining their almost impenetrable defence will play a crucial role; whilst an attribute not synonymous with Guardiola sides, the evolution of Pep’s City into a defensively strong outfit has provided the platform to challenge, recovering their position after a disappointing start.
Having made three appearances in January, including a full 90 minutes and a clean sheet against Sheffield United last weekend, Guardiola has demonstrated a willingness to give the Laporte minutes.
Whether Aymeric Laporte plays a leading role or is part of the supporting cast remains to be seen, but in the most unpredictable of Premier League campaigns the qualities, the experience and defensive stability the Frenchman holds could prove invaluable when the curtain comes down on Manchester City’s season.