When Manchester City spent a club-record £57million to sign Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Bilbao, the overwhelming reaction was one of mild disdain.
Anyone familiar with the young Frenchman’s time in Spain will have recognised him as a fine central defender, but was he really an upgrade on what City already had? Did they need to spend so heavily on a position in which they were already well-stocked?
It was seen as an extravagance; City, streets ahead in the title race at the time, were throwing their financial weight around simply because they could.
Little more than a year on, though, Laporte’s performances have been so impressive, his integration into Pep Guardiola’s side so smooth, that, far from being just another cog in City’s relentless winning machine, he is one of the team’s most important individuals.
So much so, in fact, that the injury he sustained in City’s Carabao Cup final shootout victory over Chelsea, which threatens to keep him sidelined for up to five games, has the potential to derail the Premier League champions’ pursuit of an unprecedented quadruple.
The fixtures Laporte looks set to miss, luckily for City, are all eminently winnable, comprised of ties against West Ham United, Bournemouth, Watford, Schalke in the Champions League and Swansea in the FA Cup, at which point an international break kicks in to give the defender ample recovery time.
Still, though, in a season which has seen City slip up against Leicester City, Crystal Palace and Newcastle United, nothing can be taken from granted; the loss of Laporte, with his calm leadership, clean-shorts defensive work and crisp forward passing, is one City will certainly feel.
When he signed for the Etihad club last season, Vincent Kompany, Nicolás Otamendi and John Stones covered all the bases in the middle of the backline: the former brought experience and leadership, Otamendi offered tenacity and grit, and Stones, although mired in a patch of inconsistency, was the future, the archetypal modern centre-back ready to anchor defence for club and county for the next decade.
Laporte is all these things in one, while all three of his central-defensive colleagues have experienced indifferent campaigns. An injury-blighted career is catching up with 32-year-old Kompany, who has started just six Premier League hames this season; Otamendi is not the assured defender of a year ago; and Stones, still inconsistent, is also out injured at present.
There is an argument to be made that the 24-year-old is an irreplaceable and important to City’s prospects as any players bar defensive midfielder Fernandinho, who was also injured at Wembley.
Defensive roles at City are different to any other side in England, and almost any in the world. Guardiola’s men dominate possession to such an extent that the assets most prized in City’s defenders are technique with the ball and concentration without it.
City average a 63.4 per cent share of possession, and Guardiola is an advocate of constructing attacking moves from deep; these two truths combine to mean that a City defender’s workload comprises more of tasks with the ball than without it.
No defender in the Premier League this season has made as many accurate passes as Laporte; he has become City’s go-to instigator, his left foot supremely accurate – 92.2 per cent of his attempted passes find their target – whether handing off possession to a colleague in close proximity or breaking the lines to pick out David Silva or Raheem Sterling higher up the pitch.
His defensive work is always tidy and timely and he carries an understated authority free on insecurity, no need for overly aggressive challenges or showy reprimanding of team-mates.
Virgil van Dijk‘s near-faultless season with Liverpool has made him a frontrunner to be named Player of the Year, and no one would doubt just how key the Dutchman has been to the Reds’ title challenge. But Laporte, who joined City during the same transfer window as Van Dijk’s record switch to Anfield, is just as important to his team and worthy of equal billing.
From an unnecessary accoutrement, Laporte is now the pillar holding up City’s defence. Without him, the risk of collapse increases.