Manchester City’s defense has been so creaky away from the Etihad this season that some, myself included, wrote off the Blues as title contenders. But following a strong spell of thirteen out of a possible fifteen points, City find themselves once again within earshot of the top of the table.
On Tuesday night in Leicester, City progressed to the semifinals of the League Cup but it was at a great cost. Pablo Zabaleta, the only reliable defender the club has fielded this season, pulled a hamstring and is out indefinitely. Micah Richards who has proven to be injury prone in recent years is also injured. And the summer decision to allow Maicon to leave the club has left the Blues with no natural right-backs available for selection during the busy festive period.
Manager Manuel Pellegrini is faced with two unenviable options for the next few matches — either play James Milner at right-back, something Pellegrini’s predecessor Roberto Mancini did on multiple occasions when making tactical changes during a match (but Mancini never started Milner at right-back but shifted him to the back line from the midfield on multiple occasions when shifting to another formation to protect a lead or due to some other tactical consideration), or select Dedryck Boyata as a natural central defender.
Milner’s profile is well known to our readers. A natural midfielder whose hustle and tactical awareness makes him useful almost anywhere on the pitch, he is perhaps the option Pellegrini will opt for to be safe. But what about Boyata, the now forgotten former star of City’s youth setup?
Considered the best player on City’s 2008 FA Youth Cup winning side, the Belgian defender was quickly integrated into the first team soon after Roberto Mancini took over as Blues Manager in December 2009. A few weeks later, having just turned 19, Boyata started both legs of the League Cup semifinal against Manchester United. He continued to feature regularly for the club and even got a full national team call up for Belgium, until a disastrous Sunday afternoon in October 2010.
That day, Boyata took down Arsenal’s Marouane Chamakh inside the first ten minutes of the match and was sent off. Manchester City lost the game 3-0 and would spend the rest of the season trying to chase down Arsenal for the coveted third and final automatic Champions League position. The Blues finally caught and passed Arsenal on the final day of the season, and Boyata got his final league appearance for the club that day in May 2011 when City defeated Bolton.
Boyata was loaned to Bolton the following season and then to FC Twente the year after. The defender was sure to be headed out the door this summer. But the injury bug that hit the club over the summer and has yet to recede required the youngster to hang around. Now perhaps Pellegrini, having turned to him against Leicester when Zabaleta went down will turn to him in the Premier League?
Milner is the safe choice, but the Chilean manager may not want to lose the value the Englishman brings in midfield particularly late in matches. Therefore, Boyata might get the call. Either way Manchester City’s upcoming opposition, that includes a Boxing Day match against red hot Luis Suarez and Liverpool, could be salivating.