Stones setback leaves Guardiola facing test of his leadership
Injured defender joins Laporte on the sidelines Manager backs academy graduates to plug gaps
It is too early in the season to worry about Manchester City, but Pep Guardiola is already dealing with a crisis of sorts after John Stones picked up a thigh injury in training that means they launch their Champions League campaign against Shakhtar Donetsk with only one specialist centre-back.
Stones’s form may have been a concern for a manager who made his signing the first priority when he came to England three years ago, although it is nothing compared to the problems a lengthy injury could cause.
The England international, who was widely criticised following the defeat by Norwich last weekend, broke down in a training session in Ukraine yesterday. Guardiola – who has also lost Aymeric Laporte until February with a knee injury – fears he will be out for at least four to five weeks. That leaves only Nicolas Otamendi available to play, with defensive midfielder Fernandinho poised to start alongside him in the centre of defence in Kharkiv and cover provided by academy graduates Eric Garcia and Taylor Harwood-bellis.
For the richest club in Britain, with a talent pool so deep it has been the envy of most of Europe for the last decade, the prospect of playing until the start of November with one senior centre-back is an unexpected challenge that Guardiola – for now – is relishing.
“It’s a big challenge,” said Guardiola, who is facing Shakhtar in the group stage of the Champions League for the third successive year. “John went to make a pass in training and there was a problem with a muscle. It will be four or five or six weeks.
“For me as a manager, it is an incredible challenge. We’ve got just one centre defender in Nico – but I believe a lot in something people don’t know [about this team], which is the spirit and commitment and everyone must make a step forward to solve this problem we have.
“I think the players [who] are going to go back into defence, like Fernandinho, Taylor Bellis and Eric Garcia from the academy, we will go with them for the next few months.
“Sometimes these situations happen. It has happened and what we are not going to do is complain.
“If they are not able [to play], they are not able, so we have to get 11 players out and on the pitch and make an extra effort. I like it, to prove myself and show we are able to find a solution for the team, to make an incredible step forward and find a solution to this problem that we have. We have lost two important central defenders in John and Aymeric, who are injured for a long time.”
Guardiola’s response sounded impressive and this is undoubtedly a challenge which, if he can pass, will further raise his managerial stock.
Many of the caveats attached to his stunning achievements as a manager are that his success has come because he has always had the best and biggest squads to choose from at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and City.
Yet, the loss of two centre-backs to injury and the failure to sign a replacement for Vincent Kompany in the summer – City could not keep pace with Manchester United in the bidding for Harry Maguire and decided against a move for Bournemouth’s Nathan Ake – has left them short
compared to previous years. Unlike some managers, Guardiola seems determined to avoid shifting the blame or picking a fight over recruitment, but it will be a huge test for his players to ensure he is not tempted to do so should they suffer a string of bad results while Stones is missing.
“It’s not a problem, it is a challenge,” Guardiola repeated. “They will do it, no problem, my players are the best.
“We will work out with the players that we have how to create something. Football is not how you handle the good situations, it is how you handle the bad ones.
“This team has done that in the past. We have won seven titles, nobody gave us anything, we won them for ourselves. The ideal situation does not exist in football, it is how you approach the challenge and I am ready for the challenge. I like it, I like to love this situation.”
In the short term, Fernandinho will move back into the hole left by Stones and the Brazilian has done well in that position before.
However, at the age of 34, he will also be vulnerable to injury if he is asked to play for every minute of every game.
“He arrived back late [in the summer] and he’s 34 years old, that’s why he hasn’t played longer,” replied Guardiola when asked why his appearances had been limited.
“He trained last week in the international break and it went well. With the experience he has as a team-mate and his personality, of course he can play in that position.
“Sometimes, for tactical reasons, he played there last season and now, with him, Taylor Bellis, Eric and Nico, we are going to play
them in that position.”
Sidelined: Centre-back John Stones could be ruled out for up to six weeks