Perhaps one of the lesser discussed aspects of Manchester City’s title defence this season has been a continued ability to pick up clean sheets. At the season’s start, when the wheels began to come off our first attempt to retain a title in 44 years, it was blamed on defensive errors and a slip in form on the part of Vincent Kompany and latterly, Joe Hart.
However, as the season has progressed, it has become clear that the defence in fact has been the least of Mancini’s concerns – with only 24 goals conceded it is the tightest in the league, in spite of having faced up to an injured captain and talisman in Kompany, who has missed the last six weeks and various other matches earlier in the season.
This is in no small part thanks to the signing of the 19 year old Serbian international Matija Nastasic. Arriving as a bit of a surprise on deadline day, when he was part exchanged for his error-prone former Partizan Belgrade colleague Stefan Savic and around £10m. At the time, City fans knew little of the young star, who had only signed for Fiorentina in 2011 and played just one season for a mid-level club in what would generally be considered a decent European league.
What seemed at the time like a fantastic piece of business for Fiorentina, who made a substantial profit on the £2.5m they had paid for Nastasic a year earlier has actually proved to be a truly excellent piece of business for City and Mancini, leaving City fans like myself repeating the phrase “He’s only 19!” game after game as if to reassure ourselves that he actually exists, rather than being a figment of our imaginations.
In the 17 Premier League games Nastasic has played for City this season, they have won 69% and when he has not played, a mere 45%. He has received a single yellow card across all of these games. As a 19 year old centre back in his first season in the Premiership, errors have been noticeable by their absence, particularly as compared to Savic, who last season committed a series of gaffes more in line with what might be expected from a young defender experiencing the hustle and bustle of English football for the first time.
His composure on the ball, strength in the tackle and aerial ability again won Nastasic plaudits against Aston Villa last night and although the man of the match award was handed to his defensive partner Kolo Toure, it could just have easily have gone to Matija.
Villa’s Christian Benteke has made his fair share of centrebacks look amateurish this season, his power, pace and amazing leap proving too much for even the most experienced defenders, as Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel found out at Anfield in Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat back in December. In spite of getting away with what would have been a slightly soft penalty on the Belgian beast, last night Nastasic handled Benteke with aplomb, he and Kolo Toure limiting Villa to one single shot on target in the entire match, which was cleared off the line in the first half and was perhaps the only significant occasion on which Benteke beat either City centreback.
This quiet efficiency has been the story of Nastasic’s season, in spite of his youth and relative lack of experience he has shown a maturity beyond his years and fitted seamlessly into what was last season’s best defence, shunting the far more experienced Joleon Lescott to the bench. At the season’s start, Mancini’s decision to break up the successful Kompany-Lescott partnership raised eyebrows amongst fans – having seen Nastasic play for the last 7 months, it now looks like the kind of masterstroke which will benefit the club greatly in the long haul.
The decision appears to have been motivated by a desire on Mancini’s part to play with two ball-playing centrebacks, both as capable as the other of carrying the ball out of defence and looking for a pass into midfield. Too many times last season Lescott looked uncomfortable in this position, with both full backs pushed up almost like wingers, his inability to find a ball to Yaya Toure or Gareth Barry in midfield was regularly exposed by teams playing a high line and putting he and Kompany under pressure. Far too many aimless thumps over the top was the result, much to the manager’s frustration, who undoubtedly likes his teams to play a patient, possession game.
Nastasic however has appeared far more at ease with this role – he does not have the sometime Bambi-on-ice look of Lescott with the ball at his feet (this is no great slight on Lescott, who although limited in some areas is on the whole an excellent defender) and his passing ability is spelled out by the stats – landing 86% out of over 600 this season. This is one excellent reason to start the young Serb ahead of the older, more experienced Englishman and has made Mancini’s decision seem extremely prescient.
Looking to the future, providing that the return of Kompany from a niggling calf injury does not disturb the status quo which appears to have developed over the last six weeks at the heart of City’s defence, the partnership between he and Nastasic could well be a formidable one. To other clubs in the Premier League, the frightening part will be that this won’t just be next season, or the one after, but for many years to come.