I have an unpopular footballing opinion: I like Jesus Navas.
I don’t think he’s a world class footballer, he’s not my favourite player, nor do I think he should start every week for Manchester City. But I do like his attitude, and I do think he has some redeeming qualities.
Let’s start with the negatives. He hasn’t scored a Premier League goal in years, despite missing several good (some golden, gift-wrapped and ribboned) chances. His crosses are often underwhelming. He hits the first man (a bugbear of anyone who watches football regularly) with a frightening regularity and is generally like a terrier running around the pitch, biting at calf muscles and winning countless corners from deflected crosses.
His performance at full-back this weekend, though, seemeed to show a new side to his game. He took a while to get used to his new role but the responsibility of playing as a right-back in a back four was perhaps too much. His stats, however, aren’t bad for his first go, and if you were to, say, put him into a wing-back role in a back three, he might get on much better.
When Antonio Conte arrived at Chelsea his main problem was the morale and attitude around the squad. But he also had to address the full back dilemma: Branislav Ivanovic had been a great servant to Chelsea, but his effectiveness as a right-back was diminishing, while Cesar Azpilicueta had to be deployed away from his natural side.
But what Conte realised was quite remedial: he had the nucleus of a winning team. The phrase the ‘spine’ of a football team is an overused one because the concept is so simple, yet so effective. When Conte took over, it was this spine he shored up. N’Golo Kante was added to add the steel, and a back three formed around David Luiz. With those two players forming the backbone, everything he had around that became that bit better.
The argument is essentially this: if you are strong in central areas, then it’s harder for the opposition to score. Chelsea’s starting XI – and they play together often enough to allow us to call it that by now – includes nine players who have won at least one league title at some point in their careers. Only two of the normal starters haven’t: Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses.
It’s no coincidence that Conte’s ‘spine’ is made up of hard-nosed experienced players, whilst the wing-backs are less important in terms of their solidity. What they are, though, is a means to an end.
That end is creating space for the more gifted attackers in front, and helping out the defence behind. And when they help out at the back, they aren’t necessarily ‘defenders’ so much as they’re extra bodies who can fill space and make it harder for the opposition to find space or pick a pass.
For City, the equivalent this season is having Yaya Toure play as the deep-lying defensive midfielder. There, he drops between the centre backs so that he can pick the ball up and recycle possession, but he’s also there in case City lose it further up the pitch. If they do, he’s an insurance policy against counter attacks; and not because he’s a good defender, just because he’s an extra body. (Normally, City would want Fernandinho to play that role, and he is certainly more of a ‘defender’, but when Toure does it, he acts more as the insurance policy).
The difference between City and Chelsea this season, though, isn’t so much in terms of quality as personnel. Conte had the nucleus of a winning side and he found a system that suited its strengths, and turned its weaknesses into positives by turning the two weakest players in the starting XI into space makers and defensive fillers. Guardiola, on the other hand, is making do with some players who just don’t fit what he’s trying to do.
But he’ll never get the perfect team. Whether that’s because it’s unrealistic to expect an entire squad of perfectly-suited individuals or whether it’s through injury to key players, Guardiola will always need to use versatile squad players. But Antonio Conte has shown that you can nullify a player’s weaknesses by making sure they aren’t integral to the team’s defence or their attack, whilst still playing a supporting role in both. And with the full-back areas probably the weakest parts of City’s current squad, Guardiola will either have to buy three or four new ones in the summer, or start to look at other ways around the problem that involve having to buy fewer players for the role.
Turning Victor Moses – a pacey winger whose lack of a final ball has always been frustrating – into a competent wing-back was a master stroke from Conte, both in terms of making use of a squad player and in creating a formation which took the league by storm. And if there’s one player in Manchester City’s squad who could do the same, it’s Jesus Navas.
Nullifying his weaknesses, both attacking and defensive, and making his primary role one of creating space for the likes of Raheem Sterling could suit Navas. And more importantly, it could suit City’s better players, too.