Ronald Koeman was quick to congratulate himself for instructing his side to ‘keep Otamendi on the ball’ upon reflection of a point earned in a 1-1 draw at the Etihad Stadium on Monday night, though it was his friend and former teammate Pep Guardiola to whom he owed his gratitude.
With 47 touches of the ball within the first 26 minutes, a figure more than double of the majority of players on the pitch, the all-too-frequent sight of Otamendi wandering rather aimlessly into Everton territory was just one by-product of a flawed 3-5-2 system.
Franck Ribéry once accused Guardiola of being an over-complicator and the Catalan tactician’s perceived arrogance can at times prompt over-emotional criticism from the fans, especially in those moments just after the final whistle when the dust has yet to settle. But there is always method to the madness, and the utilisation of three central defenders protected by two wing-backs and a central-defensive midfielder definitely goes some way to addressing those defensive problems that haunted City last season. The team never looked in danger of conceding for 89 minutes of this match, but in the minute we did, going down in the 35th to a Wayne Rooney strike, it was the fault of perhaps the squad’s most attacking player playing completely out of position.
Regrettably, the treatment of one issue appears to neglect the one that Guardiola bemoaned more than any in his first term in charge of the club. And had Leroy Sané started as a left-forward in a 4-3-3 rather than a left wing-back in a 3-5-2, City may not have appeared so narrow and lacking in ideas against Everton. I have sympathy for Leroy because the warning signs were there in pre-season. The German doesn’t have a defensive bone in his body yet at times in this game he was seen stood alongside John Stones as Otamendi drove forward. A thoroughly disheartening evening for Sané was compounded when he gave the ball away to Dominic Calvert-Lewin who squared to Rooney for his 200th Premier League goal and his 12th against City.
Further up the pitch Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus were also left bemoaning the absence of wide men. And while it is true that the pair do not form the most fluent partnership, their natural instincts to come deep for the ball often obstructing rather than creating space in the final third, there is evidence from last term that the two forwards can operate together effectively in a system that employs wingers. In a 3-5-2 system however, the pair become easy to mark with no one to stretch the opposition’s back line and their movements become predictable.
There is hope that Benjamin Mendy’s return to fitness will mean a return to the shape that produced the breathtaking football towards the end of last season. By removing a centre-back from the eleven, setting Sané and Raheem Sterling free in the final third and rotating Agüero and Jesus as opposed to shoehorning them into the same set-up to appease egos, Guardiola can still make use of attacking full-backs as he wishes to.
We may only be two games into the season but Pep already seems to have more questions than solutions on his hands. An eleven that leaves Sané, Sterling and Bernardo Silva on the bench surely deprives City of width and creativity, the two main components this team relies on for goals. Without them, more frustration may lie ahead.