It was as if Manchester City felt they had the night off against FC Basel, or could at least be excused from maintaining their usual standards after scoring five away goals in the first leg of their Champions League encounter with the Swiss side.
While City dominated possession with 78% of the ball, they only really made it count in the early stages as Gabriel Jesus netted in the eighth minute. After that, Basel staged an impressive comeback inspired by clinical breakaways.
While the biggest problem for City’s fringe players was mindset, and perhaps lesser match sharpness than their midweek opponents too, the heart of defence was arguably the most disappointing department on Wednesday night as two young centre-backs struggled to truly impose themselves on a Basel attack that knew they had nothing to lose at the Eithad Stadium.
And there was a key duality in personnel with the last match City lost: the 1-0 defeat to third-tier Wigan in the FA Cup when poorly defending counter-attacks was also at the route of the result. John Stones and January signing Aymeric Laporte were paired by Pep Guardiola for the very first time at the DW Stadium and after another underwhelming performance from the 23-year-old duo against Basel, it appears they’re a somewhat flawed partnership.
Perhaps the most obvious point is their lack of experience, something that always becomes more apparent in the Champions League than any other cup competition. But there is also a clashing similarity in styles; while Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi are both powerful, domineering defenders who look to win the ball high up the pitch rather than engage in foot races, Stones and Laporte are more covering centre-halves – looking to protect the space behind a more assertive partner.
And thus, when FC Basel scored their first goal on Wednesday, the manner in which both centre-backs retreated a few yards too far to allow Basel’s most dangerous player, Mohamed Elyounoussi, enough space to blast the ball beyond Claudio Bravo was incredibly telling. Neither took responsibility, and neither truly confronted the situation.
Of course, some will argue Stones’ clear downturn in form is the more pertinent issue than whether Laporte is the right defender to play alongside him, and it must be said that for all their misgivings defensively, both young centre-halves have consistently demonstrated their quality on the ball during their two outings together, making over 500 passes combined.
Likewise, after relying on Kompany and Otamendi consistently during a hugely tough week that saw City face Arsenal twice and host Chelsea, it’s understandable that Guardiola rotated for a dead rubber tie.
But the early signs suggest Stones and Laporte just aren’t quite the right fit for each other. While that’s not so much an issue as long as Kompany and Otamendi are around to partner them, providing that extra leadership and difference in style, it’s an issue that could crop up more regularly in the future.