The captain will make his comeback next week. Vincent Kompany will play at the Etihad Stadium for the first time since his wondrous winner against Leicester powered Manchester City towards the title. It will be an exercise in nostalgia, a testimonial to celebrate 11 years of stalwart service. It will also be an illustration of what they have lost: not merely a colossus, but the luxury of a fourth centre-back.
Especially as the first choice may not be seen again for some time. City know what they gained on an afternoon when they procured three points with the minimum of fuss. They are waiting to discover the extent of the loss.
Aymeric Laporte exited the 4-0 win against Brighton on a stretcher. “He has gone to hospital,” said manager Pep Guardiola. “It doesn’t look good. The doctor is going to call me but I think it will be a while.” Quite how long that will prove is a moot point, but the fact Guardiola mentioned Leroy Sane, who ruptured a cruciate ligament in the Community Shield, indicated one worst-case scenario. Another, when Kompany was not replaced and Harry Maguire instead joined Manchester United, has materialised with injuries at the back.
From a quartet, City will be down to a duo, even when John Stones is fit again. Stones has flourished for half a season in each of the last two years, but not an entire one; Nicolas Otamendi has regressed since Guardiola hyperbolically branded him “superman” in 2017-18. The Englishman and the Argentinian ended the Treble campaign as the understudies. Between them, Kompany and Laporte formed City’s equivalent of Virgil van Dijk, the new Anderlecht player-manager with the charisma and leadership, but his unassuming sidekick with unflustered excellence as the left-sided centre-back.
That Laporte can be overlooked is illustrated by the fact he is the world’s most expensive uncapped player. A £57m signing is set to retain that unwanted tag as, after Didier Deschamps granted him a belated call-up, he will withdraw from the squad to face Albania and Andorra. Guardiola, who rarely revisits his interest in targets who turned him down, signed Laporte at the second time of asking. He described him on Friday as the world’s best left-sided centre-back – Uefa, who anointed Van Dijk their player of last season, might not concur – but his criteria have never merely been about defending.
Perhaps the fondness for a left-footed passer in the centre of defence is a Cruyffian influence that has permeated to managers as different as Guardiola and Louis van Gaal but last year the Catalan said: “He gives us an alternative for the build-up, quicker and faster than the other ones who are right-footed.”
Laporte’s pass completion rate in each of his three Premier League campaigns has been between 92.3 and 93.3 percent. If he is the measured metronome, Guardiola likes centre-backs with the skillset of a midfielder. Shorn of Laporte, he had a midfielder with the skillset of a centre-back for the final 53 minutes. Fernandinho’s temporary deployment may become a more regular role.
“He is a holding midfielder – everyone knows it, me included – but I think he has the conditions to play there,” Guardiola said. “He is going to adapt. He is intelligent, fast, strong in the headers, in the build-up, he has the quality to see what happens in front. He can play in both positions.”
Typically, Fernandinho expressed a willingness to do that. Centre-back, he argued, “is not a secret for me. I’ve been training in this position the last couple of weeks. We still have two centre-backs but I can play in this position. The key is just to understand the concept of the way we have to play; the movements and the pace we use in games.”
The difference between roles, he insisted is “not too much.” He added: “We have a proper style of play so we try to have the ball as much as possible, especially in the Premier League. There are two or three teams that try to play football like us, most of the teams try to play long balls so we try to anticipate and read the games. It was my first time and I hope I can improve and do better next time.”
Not that he did badly this time.
Fernandinho showed his defensive instincts with a terrific header to keep out Leandro Trossard’s goal-bound header. He has an adaptability and an attitude Guardiola likes. But he is also 34, six inches shorter than Laporte and right-footed. The Brazilian is many things, but a like-for-like replacement is not one of them.
And yet the lesson of how to cope in relative adversity can be found elsewhere in City’s defence. They are stripped of a left-footed centre-back. They have spent much of the last two seasons without a specialist left-back. Benjamin Mendy was an injured £50m Frenchman long before Laporte. Oleksandr Zinchenko excelled again against Brighton. If a billion-pound project are left looking short-staffed again, Laporte’s absence will open the door for someone else.