Partly out of desperation, partly due to having faith in his players’ versatility, Pep Guardiola has shown no fear in experimenting with Manchester City’s defense during his time at the English club. Right winger Jesus Navas was briefly redeployed at right back, to no great success.
Left-back Aleksandar Kolarov was turned into a ball-playing center back. Holding midfielder Fernandinho sometimes switched to left back.
Then, this season, Fabian Delph, a central midfielder, has a new home at left back.
The City manager might require more ingenuity to plug defensive gaps in the run-up to Christmas, with the Premier League leaders short of numbers heading into the busiest part of the season, when they play 13 games in 43 days across three competitions.
Guardiola confirmed on Monday that John Stones, a mainstay of City’s defense, could be out until the start of January with a hamstring injury sustained in the 2-0 win over Leicester on Saturday.
It leaves Guardiola with a problem, considering left-back Benjamin Mendy (knee) is out until April, Vincent Kompany and Delph have poor injury records, and City’s resources were already bare in that department after missing out on key targets in the offseason.
“I like to (see) how we react with these problems, how many players are going to play in different positions than they are used to play,” Guardiola said, appearing to relish the challenge. “Always when you’re champions, you have to handle the bad situations, the tough situations.”
Guardiola spoke of maybe playing Kyle Walker or Danilo, two out-and-out full backs, at center back. He rates Fernandinho so highly that he believes the Brazilian can fill in anywhere across the back line.
“We will find a solution,” he said. “When the spirit is good and everyone can make a step forward, it will not be a problem.”
The scenario appears to have thrown Eliaquim Mangala a lifeline at City. The France center back was signed from Porto in August 2014 for a fee that could rise to 42 million pounds (now $55 million), which raised eyebrows at the time.
Mangala was in and out of the team under former manager Manuel Pellegrini and has been largely frozen out by Guardiola, spending last season on loan at Spanish club Valencia. During the summer, he seemed surplus to requirements _ City failed with repeated bids for West Bromwich Albion’s Jonny Evans _ but didn’t find a club.
Now, he could play a key role for the team, even though his poor standard of distribution hardly makes him a Guardiola-type player.
“It’s not so complicated because I’m realistic. That’s me,” said Mangala, speaking ahead of a Champions League match against Feyenoord where he is in line to start. “In football, anything can happen. I am here today. Maybe in the summer or one year (ago), we never know what’s going to happen. You have to be focused on what you can control.”
City has already qualified for the Champions League knockout stage, a win over Feyenoord on Tuesday will seal top spot in Group F, so it’s in the Premier League where City’s defensive issues will hit hardest.
Kompany’s return last weekend after six weeks out injured could hardly have been timed better, but Guardiola is aware of the risk of relying on a player who has been plagued by one problem after another over the last two years.
“Of course, we have to take care of him,” Guardiola said. “We are trying to do that. It is a risk to play him more and more. But now Stones is out, we have a real, real problem in that position.”
It’s something for City’s Premier League rivals to cling to. Guardiola’s men hold an eight-point lead after 12 games and are playing some of the best football ever seen in England’s top division.
This might be something that slows the juggernaut.