England Women coach Phil Neville has hailed Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola after his makeshift defence helped the champions to a 2-0 success over Crystal Palace on Saturday evening.
Central midfielders Rodri and Fernandinho made an unorthodox defensive partnership for City with Aymeric Laporte and Nicolas Otamendi missing through injury, while John Stones could only make the bench.
With occasional centre-back Kyle Walker struggling through illness, City lined up with the unlikely combination that kept a clean sheet at Selhurst Park.
Speaking on Match of the Day, Neville lauded Guardiola for his bravery as the champions saw off Palace with a quickfire double in the first half.
He said (via Manchester Evening News): “I don’t think there are many managers in world football who would have the courage to play two central midfielders at the back.
“When you have 70 or 80% of possession, I think you can afford to play footballers like Fernandinho and Rodri at the back. They had the most passes in the game.
“A lot of those passes were in the Crystal Palace half because they played so deep. Pep said after the game, the speed and intelligence helped Man City play that way today.
“He is not afraid to play a midfielder at the back because they have so much control of the ball.”
Incredibly, in the space of a few sentences, Neville manages to make a silly excuse to praise Guardiola before contradicting himself.
Of course, managers wouldn’t normally have the courage to play midfielders at centre-back – the clue’s in the name. And the rare luxury that Guardiola has at his disposal in the treble-winning team that he has assembled over the past three years means he could probably get away with it, anyway.
In fairness, Rodri posted a pass success rate (91.7%) that was only topped by Ilkay Gundogan (92.4%) out of City’s starters, while Fernandinho made more clearances (four) than any other City player in recording a well-deserved clean sheet.
Though the reality is surely that Guardiola’s decision was one more of desperation rather than genius given City’s situation at the back – so if anyone deserves praise, it’s the so-called ‘defenders’ themselves.
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