Xtra Analysis: Manchester City’s Left Back Options

Let’s rewind. Following the promising arrival of Benjamin Mendy to Manchester City from Monaco in the summer of 2017, the world seemed to be at our feet. A bombing full back who could fire in devastating crosses, with tender years that promised a ceiling approaching world class quality.

Yet rather than the world at their feet, City’s problems didn’t get much past the knees. Rather than one of the best left backs in the world, Mendy has been left plagued by injuries  following repeated strains to his knee ligaments.

This has led to manager Pep Guardiola finding solutions in the way of Fabian Delph for large portions of their title-winning season last year and has recently given a run of games to the hugely likeable 22-year-old Ukrainian midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko in the left back spot.

As we know, the full back areas are critical in a Guardiola system. With his system evolving throughout his time as a coach in Spain, Germany and now England in the Premier League, his full backs typically require a need to be adept in their positional awareness as either an inverted full back or wing back, offensive contributions such as crossing and key passes and the primary physical attributes of pace and power to combat the speed and physicality of most forward lines in the league.

While Zinchenko has performed above and beyond expectations this season at left back, it is clearly a short-term solution to what appears to be a medium to long term issue with the stuttering fitness of first choice Mendy. I feel the position will be a pivotal spot called upon in the upcoming summer transfer market along with a Fernandinho replacement at holding midfield. However, with Frenkie De Jong pledging his allegiance to Barcelona, the clear outright favourite for replacing the Brazilian mastermind is Lyon’s Tanguy Ndombele, therefore lacking any need for an extensive transfer rumour article on the matter.

Below are some of the main targets across the top 5 leagues that City could and should consider in their pursuit of a left back.

Ben Chilwell (Leicester City)

Firstly, the outstanding candidate on English soil is Leicester’s Ben Chilwell. He has rapidly progressed over the past two seasons into one of the best left backs in the league, and being rewarded with a recent call up to the England national squad. Even in a faltering Puel system, Chilwell performed very well, statistically speaking. He achieves 2.4 tackles and interceptions per game, which is a similar ratio to City’s John Stones, as well as just over a key pass per 90 and 0.6 crosses a game.

Where the player thrives though, is his physical presence and ability to drive with the ball down the flank and at the heart of defences. For a player just over 5’8, he has an impressive 3.3 aerial duels won per 90, a statistic superior to any defender at Manchester City.

If you think back to the opening game of the season between Leicester and Manchester United, against an elite opponent, he demonstrated a clear talent at driving at opposing defences, with Juan Mata disposing of his defensive duties as a right winger. His dribbling ability has continued throughout the rest of the season with 1.5 dribbles per 90, an outstanding consistency that is greater than David Silva this season.

With Leicester recently appointing Brendan Rodgers, Chilwell has showed signs that he could potentially improve these stats under a more progressive style of play, making him more of an attractive option.

The only downside would be a potential £75m price tag. Rodgers is reportedly keen to keep the young Englishman in his new squad, and with Chilwell contracted until 2024, the Foxes are under zero pressure to sell. Potentially, club negotaitions could see a steep price drop as we saw with Riyad Mahrez, with inital £90m quotes for the Algerian dropping 30% to his eventual £60m transfer fee.

By similar figures, a 30% price drop could see Chilwell on the market for about £52.5m, still making him equal to Mendy or Kyle Walker in transfer fees. Leicester may be more willing to sell, too, should Chilwell’s departure spark the arrival of Rodgers’ former Celtic full back Kieran Tierney, who has long had amirers in the English league.

Ferland Mendy (Olympique Lyonnais)

What’s better than having one Mendy? Having two. Ferland Mendy had two impressive auditions in front of Guardiola that were highly reminiscent of Benjamin Mendy’s performances for Monaco when knocking City out of the Champions League on their way to the semi-finals in 2016/17. In the two encounters between Lyon and Man City this season, Lyon defended resiliently, pouncing on every mistouch of a Manchester City player and expressed their physical prowess both in terms of pace and power.

Lyon manager Genesio’s system revolves around the chief creator of Nabil Fekir, ensuring he operates in the hole behind the striker weaving paces and through balls to on rushing forward runs. Typically, Genesio turns to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-1-2 structure but this season has deployed 4-4-1-1 or 3-4-3 to establish a compact defensive posture with the extraordinary central midfield pairing Tanguy Ndombele and Houssem Auoar and unleashing the pace and skill of Fekir, Depay, Moussa Dembele and Bertrand Traore.

Ferland Mendy in this system is similar in style to Benjamin Mendy at Monaco, gaining similar tackle and interception numbers to Chilwell but offering impressive offensive output with 2 dribbles and 1.4 key passes per 90 from left back. He is also asked to press high if an opposition elects to play out from the back. Ferland also supplies a large majority of the width for Lyon’s offensive sequences as Genesio aims for his team to overload the half spaces with the forward line and use overlapping full backs to stretch the pitch.

From this, Ferland’s pivotal stat emerges. He completes 2.9 long balls per 90, more than the wonderful David Alaba, and is a facet of his play that would turn Guardiola’s head. As we see with the arrival of Laporte at the start of 2018, his ability to switch the play from left to right (4.8 long balls per 90!) is a huge weapon for Pep’s overloading strategy. Ferland’s ability to play accurate long passes could become another angle of attack for Guardiola either in his typical 4-3-3 or experimental 3-5-2 posture along with possessing the physical attributes that would allow the 23-year old to accustom to the strength and speed of the Premier League immediately.

The Frenchman acts as a direct replacement in name and playing style to Benjamin. His competency on and off the ball would give Pep a daily headache of who to play each game.

Filip Kostic (Eintracht Frankfurt)

When turning the shores of German football, left backs such as Wendell come to mind. A defensively solid (excellent 4.1 tackles and interceptions per 90), marauding full back who supplies the width, enabling inverted wingers such as Leon Bailey to join pass sequences with the central creative talent of Havertz and Brandt. Yet, my choice here would be slightly more left field, in the way of Filip Kostic at Eintracht Frankfurt.

After their DFB-Pokal triumph last season, ending a 30 year wait for silverware and seeing then manager Nico Kovac move onto Bayern Munich, Frankfurt appointed Adi Hutter. The former Young Boys coach has turned a good Frankfurt outfit into an offensive juggernaut, sending certain players into the statistical stratosphere. Players from Sebastien Haller, Ante Rebic and former Swansea midfielder Jonathan De Guzman are experiencing their best seasons along with the deadly Luka Jovic, who is fast becoming the most coveted player in Europe this summer.

Kostic, however, has dramatically improved his offensive output this season after moving from his original position as a central midfielder to an instrumental creator at left wing back. While suffering from a similar gripe that is pointed toward Zinchenko, the 26-year-old Serbian has played a crucial part of Hutter’s 3-5-2 system both in domestic and European competitions. He has accomplished nine goal contributions (3 goals, 6 assists) in the Bundesliga from left wing back and midfield, with a shot rate per 90 of 1.83, 4th highest at the club behind the flourishing front three.

With many sniggering at the overall talent in the Bundesliga, Kostic and Frankfurt have been in inspired form in the Europa League, topping the group with maximum points and recently knocking out Shakhtar Donestk (6-3) over two legs. Kostic scored in the demolition of the Ukrainian league leaders, accumulating four goal contributions from five starts (3 goals, 1 assist) with a 2 key passes, 2 crosses and 2.7 tackles and interceptions per 90 throughout the competition.

His well-rounded skillset and positional versatility, Kostic stands as a superb addition to City’s malleable and flexible system. His comfort in playing in tight spaces in the centre of midfield enable Kostic to perform the inverted full back role perfectly, potentially be cover for other midfielders through fixture congestion or injuries as well as being hugely effective at the left-wing back position in a 3-5-2 posture. This formation is something Guardiola has flirted with whenever Mendy has been fit to utilise his crossing ability and physical presence to work up and down the flank.

Kostic, while not being the first name on many City fans transfer check list, has performed brilliantly this season achieving similar stats to Mendy’s title winning season at Monaco and could a fascinating foil for Mendy at left back next season.

Jose Luis Gaya (Valencia)

My fourth option would be the Valencia left back Jose Luis Gaya. The immensely coveted full back has been a consistent feature in the backline of the Bats, amassing excellent stats during their past few tumultuous seasons. Since the managerial takeover of Marcelino, Valencia have gone from conceding the third most amount of goals outside the relegation zone in 2016/17 to the second-best defence in the league behind Atletico Madrid (surprisingly) in the space of 18 months of Marcelino’s tenure.

Marcelino’s men structure as a traditional 4-4-2, employing Simeone-esque rigidity in the defensive phase and bursting forward with the pace of Guedes, Rodrigo and Gameiro on the counter. The compact defence posture has led to Gaya accomplishing impressive tackles and interceptions – 3.9 in 2017/18 and 3.8 this season respectively. This comes from in large part Valencia’s willingness to cut off passing lanes in their positional orientated defensive structure, collapsing the defence and midfield, the half space become impenetrable and force the opponents out wide.

In the offensive phase, Gaya has demonstrated his acumen in crossing (0.8 p90), key passes (0.8 p90 – greater than PSG’s Juan Bernat) and long balls (2.1 p90). All of which, similarly to Mendy, provide useful tools Pep can utilise against stubborn opposition while knowing his defensive duties will never stray.

Gaya has been in the sights of Atletico Madrid as a long-term replacement to Felipe Luis. Other European outfits have flirted with the purchase of the Valencia graduate but Gaya signed a contract extension last summer, improving the 23-year-olds release clause to 80 million euros. But surely anyone Simeone rates as a fixture in that brick wall of a defence would put clubs like Manchester City on alert.

Álex Grimaldo (Benfica)

When news broke that Txiki Begiristain was spotted at Benfica’s latest match, there were a fair few options available as to who City’s director of football might be observing. In particular, João Félix, an electric 19-year-old forward has been attracting the attentions of Europe’s best clubs.

Yet with City’s particular defensive predicament, there is a high likelihood that, one way or another, Txiki will have laid his eyes on Álex Grimaldo. This highly sought-after Spanish full back is another intriguing option that Guardiola and City could flirt with this upcoming summer. At 23 years-old, attracting heavy transfer attention recently from City and other elite European clubs such as Barcelona just highlights how impressive Grimaldo has been in his short career so far. 

Tutored in the immensely respected academy of La Masia, Grimaldo has been plying his trade in the Portuguese league with Benfica and has flourished during his time there. He is currently experiencing his best season at the club with 9 goal involvements (4 goals, 5 assists) in the league this season, as well as some impressive performances in Europe. 

In Primeira Liga, Grimaldo has been on fire, boasting a superb 1.2 key passes and crosses per game, along with 1.5 dribbles and 3 long balls per 90. These stats are awfully similar to, if not better than Liverpool’s extraordinary Andy Robertson. In Rui Vitoria’s and now Bruno Lage’s system, Grimaldo has shone as a proficient attacking threat down Benfica’s left-hand side, working wonderfully in tandem with their left winger Franco Cervi. Cervi operates very similarly to Leroy Sané as a traditional winger, supplying a hefty number of dribbles and crosses and also enjoys hugging the touchline to provide Grimaldo the space to either underlap or overlap with great effect. 

His spatial awareness and tactical nous both in the offensive and defensive phases makes him a deadly all-round full back. He has demonstrated a keen effectiveness for short passes and ball retention throughout this season, something which is a valuable asset in a Guardiola system with the full backs essentially deployed as inverted midfielders for progressive attacking sequences and nullifying counter attacks. 

And while the quality of opponent may not be the same, Grimaldo has excelled in European competition this season, too. In a group with Bayern Munich and Ajax, Grimaldo’s defensive statistics are monstrous. He achieved 5.4 tackles and interceptions with 2.2 clearances throughout the group phase. To put that into context, Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen has accomplished 3.8 tackles and interceptions per game during this season’s Champions League. Grimaldo was also awarded two man of the match awards during the group stage, against Ajax and AEK Athens respectively, with one coming after a critical free kick in the closing minutes against AEK, indicating a clear talent from set pieces. 

The Valencian born left back is again another potential option for Guardiola and Manchester City. His threat offensively with a brilliant defensive output and only being 23 years of age makes him a hugely desirable asset to be acquired with immediate and long-term reward. And with Benfica being prominent and accessible sellers, the full back could feasibly be pried away from the Portuguese giants and give the City left back spot healthy and youthful competition. 


Summary

These are a few on the main targets I feel should be identified and pursued this summer. There are of course other left field options such as Fiorentina’s Crisitano Biraghi with 1.4 key passes from left wing back, or Atalanta’s Timothy Castagne in the frighteningly fun Gasparini 3-4-1-2 system.

But one option that would constitute as my ultimate wildcard shout, would be Hamburg’s Douglas Santos who has accumulated astounding statistics from the left back berth this season. While only in Bundesliga 2, the young Brazilian has the best stats of any his counterparts in this article – achieving 4.8 tackles and interceptions per 90, 2.7 key passes, 2 dribbles, 1.8 crosses, 3 long balls and 0.9 shots.

Santos had similarly impressive defensive stats in his opening two season in the German top flight, but his offensive output has exploded this season in the second tier. If they are to achieve promotion this year, which is being hotly contested with Koln, Union Berlin and St Pauli, another sample size in the Bundesliga could allow potential buyers such as City to properly monitor the 24-year-olds output.

For Manchester City, Oleksandr Zincehenko has performed brilliantly during this congested winter period, garnering 3 consecutive MOTM awards and improving upon every performance. There is a chance Zinchenko could cement his place as City’s secondary left back behind the injury ridden Benjamin Mendy, but Guardiola and the City board will be considering additions in a position that has proved to bring up more problems than solutions.

Only time will tell if City’s future first choice left back lies somewhere on this list.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @notherView 

You can follow us on Twitter for more Manchester City content: @City_Xtra

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: