Manchester City’s problems with the left-back position seem to have been around since Willie Donachie moved on.
The Blues have had good players – and occasionally great players – taking up position on the left of their back four, but a crisis or an injury have always seems to be around the corner.
When they had Gael Clichy and Aleks Kolarov in the squad, the Blues were in good shape, but both had their defensive frailties, and the feeling was always that a club of City’s stature should have a complete all-rounder in every position.
Aleks Zinchenko has made a decent fist of his conversion to the role in recent years, but there are times when the fact he is not a natural defender is exposed.
The same can be said of current incumbent Joao Cancelo, although his brilliance going forward eclipses any defensive deficiencies – and those deficiencies seem to be wilting under the Portugal international’s relentless pursuit of perfection.
With Benjamin Mendy having suffered from injury and poor form in his five years with the Blues, and now facing rape allegations, there are still plenty of fans who believe they need a conventional left back rather than a converted attacking midfielder and a gifted right back who could play just about anywhere and look good.
The fact is that City are short of a senior full back, with Cancelo effectively Walker’s cover, meaning Zinchenko steps in when the England star is unavailable or rested.
Getting back to a full complement by buying someone of sufficient quality may be tricky in a summer when resources will be directed at buying a striker and possibly replacing Fernandinho in midfield.
There is no panic, especially as Aymeric Laporte and Nathan Ake have both shown they can be effective in the role, especially in games where a little extra defensive security might be needed.
Pep Guardiola has taken a keen interest in Josh Wilson-Esbrand, moving him up into the first-team squad for spells this season, and handing the 19-year-old his debut as a starter in the 6-1 Carabao Cup win over Wycombe in September.
Wilson-Esbrand did himself plenty of favors in that game. Secure and composed in defence, he also ranged forward well, showed the technical ability you expect of a City academy product, and – perhaps most importantly – was not in the least fazed by going from a smattering of supporters at the CFA Stadium to performing in in front of 31,000 fans at the Etihad Stadium.
He capped an accomplished debut by turning the Wycombe right back inside out and, resisting the temptation to whip in a hopeful cross, instead turned back and picked out Riyad Mahrez. Once the ball was rolled accurately onto the Algerian ace’s left foot, there was only one outcome.
That gave him as many assists as Mendy managed in 13 appearances last season.
Of course, contracts are not dished out on the basis of one good moment, or even one good match, but Wilson-Esbrand’s clear-headedness and exhibition of the qualities that Guardiola cherishes will have stood him in good stead.
Signed from the West Ham academy in 2019, the Londoner has now appeared for England at under-18 and under-20 level, and the fact he was handed a new contract until 2026 – the same length of time as his former City under-23 colleague Cole Palmer – speaks volumes.
He faces stiff competition to break into the first team, with Cancelo and Zinchenko both outstanding this season.
But by offering a whole new dimension, as a left-footed left back with pace, he will be of even more interest to Guardiola.
I cancel favors his right foot, although he has improved his left foot to the extent of panicking Eric Bailly into an own goal in the derby at Old Trafford.
And while Zinchenko is left-footed, he is too slow to ever be an overlapping, hit-the-byline kind of left-back – his strength, like that of Cancelo, lies in stepping inside and adding value to City’s brilliant midfield.
Guardiola pointed out this season, when he picked Phil Foden on the left against Liverpool, that he sometimes likes to see a left-footed player on the left and a right-footer on the right – when he feels there is a vulnerability to be exploited .
That holds true with attacking full-backs too. Kyle Walker’s ability to bomb down the right has been a major asset for City, especially when coupled with Mahrez’s penchant for carving inside onto his left foot of him, which leaves space into which the England man can gallop.
Wilson-Esbrand still has plenty of work to do before he can dream of competing with Cancelo and Zinchenko, but the alternative he offers will help.
It seems the clamor for City to buy a left-back may die a little this summer, when a striker and possibly defensive midfielder have to be the priority.