By Adam Hurrey
It doesn’t require much data analysis to conclude that the numbers don’t look good for Manchester City’s defence. A reported £70m was spent to bring in Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi - signings that, at worst, would support their injury-prone captain Vincent Kompany; at best, they would allow him to be replaced altogether. After ringing intermittent alarm bells in their efforts to make themselves at home in the Premier League, Mangala and Otamendi’s partnership was finally and fully exposed in all its dubious glory in the defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates.
Unlike goalscoring strikers and their ammunition-supplying midfields, it can be tricky to quantify and itemise a centre-back’s potential contribution to his new side. As footballing fall guys, it is goalkeepers who tend to be the most exposed to a fatal error, but the modern defender must be something of a premium multi-tasker.
An imposing physical presence is overwhelmingly preferable in the Premier League, but rarely enough on its own - in 2015, a title-challenging centre-back needs to be equally comfortable in shackling the opposition striker as he is pinging a 50-yard crossfield pass. Meanwhile, the more subtle elements to the art of defending - reading the game, positioning, communication - tend only to be conspicuous by their absence.
Regardless of their pedigree or their price, accommodating two centre-backs still very much in the process of adjusting to the Premier League was a risk for Manchester City. To their credit, both new recruits have showed significant stomach for the fight. It’s hard to imagine Mangala being truly bullied out of a game, while Otamendi’s PG-rated remake of Ben Thatcher’s elbow on Pedro Mendes - an unceremonious barging-over of Olivier Giroud early in the second half - earned him an indisputable yellow card.
While striking partnerships have been pushed to near-extinction by Premier League tactical fads, central-defensive pairings remain the crucial foundation to any title contender’s prospects. John Terry’s succession of complementary right-hand men in the Chelsea backline - William Gallas, Ricardo Carvalho and Gary Cahill - all had the job of making up for their captain’s well-established shortcomings while ensuring their own error-free performances.
Otamendi and Mangala appear to be at similar stages of their Premier League learning curve (although the 27-year-old Argentine seems rather more street-wise) but, on the evidence of Monday night, are far from being on the same defensive page, despite having played together a Porto previously. Mangala's naivety, occasionally bordering on amateurism, has seen the Frenchman become a figure of fun on social media as he repeatedly fails to perform basic tasks.
At 23, Mangala arrived at the Etihad last season with only an astronomical price tag with which to demonstrate his theoretical Premier League worth. A towering debut against Diego Costa - last season’s irrepressible, line-leading, fully-focused Diego Costa - suggested that the English top flight was the natural home for such a commanding physical presence.
The 33 Premier League games that have followed since have shown how quickly a rock can crumble under pressure, as he rapidly becomes the biggest liability in the league. The Frenchman’s dreadful ball out from the back in the last seconds of first-half injury time - generally accepted to be the most opportune moment for a psychological blow - gifted Arsenal the chance to double their lead and make City do all the subsequent chasing.
That alone was enough to seal Mangala’s evening as a torrid one, but there was plenty of time for garnish. Aaron Ramsey ghosted in on the hour mark to spurn a chance for 3-0, an opportunity granted to him only by Mangala’s curious interpretation of an offside trap.
Minutes later, Mangala’s evening was capped by the most schoolboy of errors - one that appears on the very first page of the 'Things Defenders Should Not Do' handbook - as a harmless Petr Cech punt upfield skidded off the Emirates carpet and comfortably over the defender’s woefully overcommitted leap on the halfway line. Sunday league centre-halves up and down the country sighed in sympathy, and his misery was complete with half an hour left.
The impact of Kompany’s prolonged absence on City’s prospects is impossible to ignore. In his eight league appearances, City had conceded just once. Without him, 18 goals have been shipped in just nine games, and only 12 points secured. As it stands, it may be a quicker job to rebuild the captain’s fragile body than to wait for Otamendi and Mangala to complete their unsteady acclimatisation to the unforgiving Premier League battleground.