Aymeric Laporte is set for a long spell on the sidelines following a knee injury.
The City centre-back was stretchered off during Man City’s 4-0 win over Brighton. He successfully underwent surgery on his knee before the September international break and after it Pep Guardiola confirmed that the injury will keep him out until 2020. “Not long, five months, six months, next year… January or February,” the Catalan reported. This is good news for City as it means there’s still a good chance he could play a serious part in this season’s run-in.
This gives Manchester City a serious problem: right now their only fit centre-back in the first-team squad is Nicolas Otamendi. John Stones is expected to return for their next fixture after the international break, but still that leaves just two fit recognised centre-backs (and Stones has shown a propensity for picking up injuries) for potentially a very long time in a season full of games.
Not only does it limit City’s options out of numerical availability, but Laporte is undeniably City’s most important defender. He is the anchor around which their back-line is built, as evidenced by the fact that when he had a rough go of things in the first half against Spurs in last season’s Champions League and committed two errors, the north Londoners scored the goals that eventually dumped City out. They have no back-up plan if Laporte underperforms because he is their back-up plan.
This injury comes at a particularly cruel time as Laporte had finally earned a call-up to Les Bleus national team. He had played outside of France since the age of 16 when he joined Athletic Bilbao. His Basque grandparents allowed him to represent the legendary La Liga club, and he swiftly rose through the ranks there. However, no matter how well he did, Laporte could never gain any international recognition.
For years, inferior defenders blocked his path to being included in the French squad. No one could understand why, for instance, Adil Rami went to the 2018 World Cup ahead of Laporte. Didier Deschamps did later explain himself, however, saying: “If you tell me he must be in Rami’s place then I stop you right away. Sorry but two left-footed defenders at centre-back at international level…We have a lot of left-footers and few right-footers.”
Deschamps’ preference for playing a left-footer on the left side of defence is nothing new, but it does at least explain why Laporte didn’t get the call straight away. Although one could argue he was a better defender than Presnel Kimpembe in summer 2018. Certainly with Samuel Umtiti’s struggles since that triumph in Russia, there is no better left-sided centre-back for France, which is why he got the call finally and that led to Guardiola to opine on Laporte’s quality.
“For me it was a mistake when we said he is one of the best left-sided centre backs in Europe. He is the best,” said Guardiola. “All of us are so happy for him because he wanted this call for a long time,” he added, a quote which now reads as purely melancholic.
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Is Laporte the best left-sided centre-back in Europe? That’s a good question as playing on the left puts him squarely up against Virgil van Dijk. Laporte vs. Van Dijk is another debate for another time (and it’s entirely possible Guardiola meant left-footed when he said left-sided) but one thing that cannot be denied is that he Aymeric Laporte is Manchester City’s colossus.
Since he signed for the club in January 2018, Laporte has clocked up 4,171 minutes in the Premier League. That’s more than any City outfielder. The Frenchman became an almost ever-present for Guardiola’s men and his durability made him easy to rely upon.
Anyone who plays that much has to produce, and Laporte did just that. His total of 130 clearances is more than any team-mate in that time. When the ball came into the area it was most often Laporte who found himself in the way, almost like the ball was attracted to him. It’s a skill that all great defenders have: they always manage to find themselves in the way.
Laporte is dominant on the deck, making 54 tackles (no City defender has more) and patrolling passing lanes like a viper waiting to strike with a team-high 58 interceptions since his debut. Moreover, his aerial supremacy comes with 112 aerial duels won, another team high.
And after all the fancy-pants defending has failed, there’s always throwing your body on the line. And guess what, here too Laporte is dominant. He has made 10 blocks for City since debuting; no player has more for Guardiola’s men in that same timeframe (only Vincent Kompany can match the total).
Laporte is a defender who can do literally everything. Alright he’s not the fastest, but neither is Gerard Piqué and the Catalan has been one of the world’s greatest defenders for an entire decade. It’s not always about speed, but about positional and control.
Speaking of control, guess which other metric Laporte tops? That’s right, passes completed. His 3,820 is more than any City player since his debut and they’re not all sideways taps either. An impressive 460 of his passes have broken lines of play and ended in the final third – yet another team-high for the Sky Blues.
So Laporte is an absolute monster. But now he’s out injured, and Manchester City have to cope. How can they? What are their options to replace their fabulous Frenchman?
Firstly there is Fernandinho. The 35-year-old Brazilian played there at the weekend when Laporte had to go off and on the face of it, the move makes sense. Guardiola has had great success converting players to centre-back, his greatest success being Javier Mascherano. But David Alaba also worked spectacularly and he even had moderate success with Aleksandar Kolarov during his first season at City.
Of course the downside there is that at 35, Fernandinho probably doesn’t have the physical energy and hardiness to play centre-back across a long, gruelling Premier League season. Obviously John Stones will be the first-choice to replace Laporte and should he regain fitness then he certainly will partner Otamendi. This duo works well together and would serve City nicely, but Stones is injury-prone and if he goes down, where else can City turn?
Eric Garcia, the 18-year-old centre-back they pinched from Barcelona a few years back is another option to come in and plug the gap. You’d never want to place too much pressure on a teenager but we have seen many examples of youngsters coming in under pressure and flourishing that you could see Guardiola considering it if all other options are exhausted.
Speaking of all other options, perhaps the most left-field but oddly plausible suggestion is that Kyle Walker move infield to play centre-back. The Englishman played centre-back in a back-three for England rather successfully, and he has all the defensive skills needed to, in theory, play quite well at the heart of defence.
What’s more, Walker has searing recovery pace so would actually add a new dimension to City’s defence, one that could even persevere after Laporte’s return. Joao Cancelo’s signing in the summer means that Walker wouldn’t be missed at right-back, and Guardiola has said: “If Kyle Walker has to play as a central defender, he will play as a central defender. We have to find solutions.”
That much is definitely true. Any side in the world would miss a centre-back of Aymeric Laporte’s quality. Manchester City now have to find a way to barely miss him so that they can build their assault on a third consecutive Premier League title without their defensive colossus.