Why Man City's lack of a defensive midfielder might cost them the title
Eight gameweeks into the Premier League season, the title race has already begun to take shape, with Manchester City leading the way having secured 22 points out of a possible 24.
The Citizens have scored an incredible 29 goals so far with a goal difference of 25, which is a mind-boggling return of just over 3.6 goals per match. It's also the highest number of goals scored, and the highest goal difference in Europe's top five leagues.
Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero (before his injury), have both been absolutely clinical in front of goal, with 7 goals each to their name. Raheem Sterling has been a surprise package, having also scored 7 goals in all competitions so far. Leroy Sane has also had his moments of brilliance.
But the heart of this impressive side is the dynamic midfield duo of David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. In spite of being 31 years old, the Spanish playmaker continues to be an integral part of the squad, and is still one of the best attacking midfielders in the league. de Bruyne, on the other hand, is showing with every passing match why Chelsea made such a huge mistake in letting him go.
The two of them lead the assists chart for the Premier league with 6 and 5 respectively, being the creative engine that drives City's well-oiled attacking machine.
New signing Benjamin Mendy started the season in brilliant form but unfortunately succumbed to a knee injury sustained against Crystal Palace which ruled him out long term. Guardiola, however, has managed to deal with that problem by utilising former Aston Villa midfielder Fabian Delph as a makeshift left-back.
Delph has surprisingly been able to hold his own in one of the most challenging positions in modern day football, sometimes even venturing further into the midfield to provide support and overwhelm the opposition.
There's absolutely no doubt that the Citizens are the clear favourites to win the league, and maybe even in with an outside chance to challenge for the Champions League. United, Spurs and Chelsea are not that far behind, but City have showcased an incredibly attack-minded, free-flowing style of football that reminds you of teams like Guardiola's Barcelona. In that sense, no other English club has managed to dominate and play their opponents out of the match the way City have.
However, they do lack one key component that every successful club football team has had, and that is a solid defensive midfielder. City do have the likes of Yaya Toure, Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan, but all of them come with their drawbacks.
Toure is already 34 years old, and while he might be one of the greatest players ever to have worn the blue shirt, he isn't fit enough to play each and every game anymore, especially given that his side will almost certainly be challenging for every competition they play in this season.
Gundogan's talent has never been in question, but his fitness issues and susceptibility to injury cast a shadow over his incredible talent. He also isn't a defensive midfielder in the true sense of the word, and is more of a box-to-box kind of player, participating in attack as much as he does in defence.
Fernandinho is, without a doubt, an exceptional player, but like Gundogan, he isn't a true holding midfielder. His involvement in attacks sometimes leaves the defence open and unprotected.
If you consider all the incredible club teams of the past few years, they all had one defensive midfielder who wasn't always hogging the headlines but toiled away in the shadows.
Pep Guardiola's incredible Barcelona side of the late 2000's had Sergio Busquets. Man United's treble-winning side of 98/99 had Roy Keane. Jose Mourinho's first title-winning Chelsea side in 2005 had the enigmatic Claude Makélélé. AC Milan had Clarence Seedorf and Andrea Pirlo when they won the Champions League in 2003.
The importance of the position is often overlooked due to the fact that almost all of these successful sides scored tons of goals, which means the spotlight is permanently on the players who score and assist goals.
But as Sir Alex once said, "Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles." So far, City's standard centre-back pairing of John Stones and Nicholas Otamendi has proven to be more than capable of handling any attacks that they face.
However, it is only a matter of time before City come across a team that can counter their tactics and hurt them on the break. The Citizen's current formation, following Aguero's injury, is a fluid 4-1-4-1 system that often transforms into a 4-3-3 when they attack, with the fluidity and movement of the midfield trio enabling Guardiola's men to control possession and overwhelm opposition midfields in the centre of the pitch.
But when they face a team that are comfortable with sitting deep in their own half, they might run into some problems. So far, City's quick passing and off-the-ball movement of the midfield and front three have left opposition defences clueless, but they will inevitably face someone who they will find extremely difficult to break down.
The key in such matches is to not concede a goal on the counter. A good holding midfielder stays in and around the halfway line to break down any attacks. The problem with City is, if all their midfielders, forwards, and both full-backs are involved in the attack, they might be caught napping on the counter.
And it's not just the fact that City are lacking a proper holding midfielder, most of their title contenders are more balanced in defence than they are. True, City have been by far the most impressive side so far, but they cannot always rely on brute force attacking to win them matches.
Whether it is United with Matic, Chelsea with Kante, or Spurs with Dier and Wanyama, City's rivals do possess a slight edge in this particular part of the pitch. These players not only make a difference with their defending, their sheer physical presence in midfield coupled with their solid tackling and incredible work rates make them a force to be reckoned with.
Playing every match with two similar attacking midfielders like de Bruyne and Silva comes with its costs, something which City haven't had an opportunity to discover yet. They might have already faced Chelsea and Liverpool in the league, but the real test is perhaps against teams like West Brom, Burnley and Southampton.
All these teams thrive by holding a very deep defensive line and absorbing wave after wave of opposition attacks until they spot a chink in the armour that they can exploit on the counter.
For City, that chink might very well be the lack of an out-and-out defensive midfielder. So far, they have had enormous success in breaking down stubborn defences, but it really is just a matter of time before someone figures out how to stop their goalscoring rampage.
And when that happens, City should first ensure that they aren't beaten in defence, because when you have the kind of creativity that they boast in midfield, there is every chance of cracking open the defence. While Stones and Otamendi might have proven themselves capable so far, they did appear very shaky at times last season.
The lack of a player who can hold his position while allowing his teammates to do the attacking could hurt them. Such a player would sense the threat of an attack a mile away, providing valuable cover for the defenders and stopping attacks before they develop into goalscoring threats.
Against Stoke in the weekend, as Diouf played a ball to Jese, the Spanish winger's movement drew the defenders towards him, leaving Diouf free to receive the return ball unmarked on the edge of the box to slam it home. A good defensive midfielder would have covered the threat, but both Fernandinho and the centre-backs were caught napping.
It was the same problem against Napoli in midweek, as Fernandinho's error near the edge of the box nearly cost them a goal. So far, these errors have not manifested themselves in the form of bad results.
It was the same case against Everton earlier in the season, as Wayne Rooney was left free to turn in a low cross from 6 yards. Against a more unforgiving team, these errors could cost points, points that will be crucial in deciding the title race.
In the Champions League, teams like PSG and Barcelona will punish each and every mistake that they make. There will be similar problems when they come across teams like these, who dominate possession as much as City themselves do. Without a true holding midfielder, they might struggle to regain the ball before too much damage is done.
City's lack of a fulcrum in midfield to connect defence to attack, and to provide cover for the sometimes frequently error-prone Stones and Otamendi has sometimes been painfully apparent. It's merely been a case of masking these lapses with displays of exuberant attacking football.
Some of Guardiola's successful sides in the past have actually managed to get away without having such a player, but we mustn't forget that Spain and Germany aren't the same as England.
In the Premier League, survival means a lot more revenue on offer than playing in the Championship, which means that several teams have perfected the art of counter-attacking football because it is the only way for them to ensure that they manage to take points off of teams better than them.
When City's midfielders flood the final third to provide opportunities for their front three, they risk leaving pockets of space in between the midfield and defence that can be exploited with the right tactics. And attacking midfielders or forwards won't have the defensive work rate to back-track fast enough to stop an attack.
Which is why it is only a matter of time before Guardiola faces a hurdle, and he must figure out a way to resolve the issue immediately. They simply cannot afford to drop points against mid-table teams, especially in an unforgiving league like the English top flight.
But don't start doubting Guardiola's side yet. If there's anything the Spanish boss has shown in his incredible management career so far, it is that he always finds a way.
Don't be surprised if Pep ends up transforming Fernandinho, or maybe even Gundogan, into the player he needs them to be. His next big test will come against Arsenal on 5th November. The Gunners might have been frail in defence so far this term, but a match-up against two teams challenging for the title might give fans a clearer picture of where Man City stand this season, and how they can cope with bigger challenges that lie ahead.