It takes a Pep Guardiola to transform a dead-beat player into a star
Since joining Manchester City in 2015 from Valencia in a deal worth a whopping £28.5 million, Nicolas Otamendi had copped his fair share of criticism. Some of it’s been justified, some of it hasn’t.
Labelled error-prone, lacking the requisite pace, a reckless decision maker and too hot-headed to be a success at the Etihad, Otamendi’s resoundingly now silencing his critics courtesy of his tremendous form.
Unquestionably the installation of Pep Guardiola has done wonders for his game, for the hardman has improved remarkably during the Spaniard’s 18-month reign in Manchester. While he still committed the odd error last season, as Otamendi continued to adjust to the demands of Guardiola’s defined positional play philosophy, it’s clear all his hard work in training and through experience out on the pitch has finally paid off.
Now, Otamendi’s duly rewarding Guardiola for placing so much trust and faith in him, as he’s improved dramatically under his tutelage in just about every area of his game. Playing with enormous courage, authority and conviction this season, the 29-year-old’s been an instrumental component towards City’s spectacular campaign so far, which saw them make the best start to a crusade in the 129-year history of English football.
“He is one of the players I’ve met in my life with the strongest mentality with the same confidence,” gleamed Guardiola. “He is a guy who wants to learn – in terms of ball possession. He was always strong in the air, winning duels which is necessary in England.
“He has the courage to play. If he loses a game, he says: ‘give me the ball again and play.’ I give a lot of credit and value to this kind of thing. I am really impressed with the level he has. I am so happy with him. He is not afraid at all – it doesn’t matter where he plays.
“He has a lot of experience and he is such an important guy for us. Over the last month and I think for all of the season, he will play outstanding. He and John – both of them.”
Such lavish praise from one of the finest tacticians in the game is richly warranted too due to his fantastic consistency and superb performance levels, not only in defence but also in attack. The scorer of five goals already, the former Velez Sarsfield, FC Porto and Valencia stopper have used his aerial prowess to lethal effect, scoring three goals with headers. Moreover, finding the back of the net in crunch moments like when he bagged the winner vs. Manchester United in the derby, plus by scoring vital levellers in wins against Napoli and West Ham, have further illustrated his goalscoring worth.
To stick with his offensive contribution, and his distribution has been an absolutely essential ingredient behind his impact. Obviously being a component technician is an imperative element for any Guardiola centre back. And Otamendi’s aptitude in this regard has seen him play a key role in executing Guardiola’s unwavering desire to pass out from the back.
Using precision, accuracy and his excellent range of passing, the Argentine international’s not only shone in his team’s construction phases but excelled. Whether playing penetrative line breaking passes into the feet of the likes Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan, that can take out five players with one pass and are often superbly disguised, through his wicked cross-field diagonals or playing crisp short passes, Otamendi’s been crucial here.
Indeed, the statistics further underline his value in this aspect, with his accuracy and capacity to complete vertical balls into his attackers a standout. Of his 81.31 passes per game, he’s notably hitting 28.78 forward passes per game at an 88.16% completion rate, while even more strikingly making 10 final third passes per game at an 83.84% clip. Not bad at all for a player many believed this area was a weakness of his.
Defensively, his influence has been just as keenly felt. Operating with equal measures of intelligence and force, Otamendi’s been magnificent in undertaking his duties, as his relationship with his colleagues, especially with John Stones, has provided an ideal foundation.
A real leader of the Citizens’ backline, Otamendi can always be seen gesturing and communicating with his teammates, in order to organise and help position themselves well to deal with whatever situation they’re confronting. Seeing as City play a very high line, which can leave them open to the threat of runs in behind, this has been crucial, ensuring their movements to step up, drop or shift, plus their positioning and spacing, are spot on and do as one.
It must be said that Guardiola’s masterfully implemented high pressing and counter-pressing, in particular, limit the defence’s exposure to highly dangerous balls in behind and transition sequences. By applying such vigorous and strategic pressure to their opposition, City are therefore able to force many turnovers out of them by giving them minimal time and space to cleanly utilise possession in a coherent manner. Due to Otamendi not being the quickest, City’s aptitude here has meant he’s far less exposed to these unfavorable scenarios, and thus why City can play their high line to compress the pitch so effectively.
Additional aspects of his stopping exploits that warrant mention come from his shifting movement to cover the space in behind his fullback, so they can advance upfield and City have support in behind in case of a turnover, via his body orientation when dealing with his crosses and cutbacks and in his tigerish commitment to fulfilling his marking assignments. To focus on the latter, and the way he intensely tracks his marker whenever they drop deep to link play ensures they struggle to receive cleanly, and subsequently are impeded in their attempts to distribute efficiently.
Otamendi’s colossal strength and rugged approach serve him extremely well too, allowing him to not only intimidate his adversaries, but also to win duels, both in the air and on the ground. Although his overzealousness in the challenge can tend to see him give away some sloppy free kicks, his tigerish attitude would still be something Guardiola enjoys witnessing.
Flourishing under the tactically sophisticated Guardiola, Otamendi’s case is a testament to all his perseverance and hard work, but also how well Guardiola improves players through his meticulously detailed, wholehearted approach.
Now one of the premier central defenders in Europe, Otamendi can emphatically say he’s silenced his critics by letting his exceptional performances do all the talking.
All it took was for Pep to invest some time and faith in him.
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