While much has been made of Manchester City’s fantastic forward line, the foundation has been powerhouse performances from Nicolás Otamendi
One year ago, Manchester City lost back-to-back games against Chelsea and Leicester City that left Pep Guardiola’s side trailing in the wake of Antonio Conte’s eventual champions. A summer overhaul was to be needed and no one more so than Nicolás Otamendi was deemed to be incompatible with the illustrious Spaniard’s system.
What a difference a year makes. City did indeed spend big and Pep Guardiola did bring in players to address the weaknesses that were exploited in his maiden season in England but Otamendi remained.
And the results have been spectacular as City sit eleven points clear of rivals Manchester United, unbeaten after dropping just two points in the process.
Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva and Sergio Agüero all deserve enormous praise for their role in what many in the English media are building up to be one of the great Premier League sides but the rise of Nicolás Otamendi from over-priced, hot-headed, reckless liability to commanding defensive leader has been critical to Pep’s project.
Last weekend’s derby typified this as Otamendi not only bullied United’s physically imposing number nine Romelu Lakuku but popped up at the other end to volley the winner.
A record in front of goal that highlights another of the 29-year-old’s most impressive developments. Five goals in his last fifteen appearances, after only two in the previous 97, display an appetite and understanding of Guardiola’s methodology that is producing terrific results.
Scoring more goals than any other defender in the Premier League this season, or as many as the likes of Alexis Sánchez, Marcus Rashford, Sadio Mané or Phillipe Coutinho, is of course an accomplishment and is a useful weapon for City to have in the back pocket but it is naturally at the opposite end of the pitch where Otamendi does most of his good work.
Where he was once accused of diving in, lacking positional awareness and depending on Vincent Kompany, Otamendi has become the dependable figure in the City defence with the Belgian spending an increasing amount of time on the treatment table.
If Guardiola had been willing to ship out Otamendi after his first season in charge, as some suggested, the City coach has been well and truly won over this term.
“He is one of the players with the strongest mentality that I’ve met in my life.
“A guy who wants to learn – in terms of ball possession. He was always strong in the air, winning duels is necessary in England. He has courage to play. If he loses a game, he says: ‘give me the ball again and play.’ I give a lot of credit and value to this kind of thing.
“He has a lot of experience and he is such an important guy for us,” Guardiola said glowingly earlier in the season.
A year and a half under the tutelage of Guardiola and the growth is clear. As the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach points out, Otamendi has always been strong in the air but his understanding of the role has improved, meaning the 29-year-old is caught out of possession far less, his attacking of the second ball has improved, leading to that increased number of goals and most impressively of all his passing is crisp and efficient.
Guardiola demands this. The build-up play and possession begins with goalkeeper Ederson but in Otamendi, City have developed a central defender with the confidence and poise to carry the ball and find those forward passes into midfield.
No player has completed more passes than Otamendi in the Premier League, an average of 88.3 per game, and with an impressive success rate of 91.4 per cent and while John Stones may have the reputation as the ‘ball-playing’ centre back, Otamendi has proved no slouch this season.
City’s march towards the Premier League title and status among the favourites in the Champions League has been aided by these improvements but Argentina will be real beneficiaries too.
From a time, like at City, where many questioned Otamendi’s place in the starting eleven, the Manchester City defender might just be the second name on the team sheet behind Lionel Messi now.
Otamendi has been rebuilding his international career since Diego Maradona almost destroyed it before it had even begun. The outstanding young Vélez Sarsfield prospect was something of a surprise inclusion in the 2010 World Cup squad but the decision to play the then 22-year-old at right back against Germany proved a monumental error.
Overrun and ruthlessly exposed, Argentina were thrashed by Germany and Otamendi bore the brunt of much of the frustration.
A transfer to Porto and subsequently Valencia re-established Otamendi’s reputation and while his physical attributes and strength couldn’t be questioned, there remained question marks over his positioning and all-round defensive game.
This season at City has now answered that and what Guardiola has demanded and got from Otamendi is exactly what Jorge Sampaoli is looking for ahead of the World Cup. La Albiceleste already the best forward in the world in captain Messi and in the Gladiator Otamendi, they might just have one of the top central defenders.