Much has been written about Virgil van Dijk’s impact at Liverpool since his move from Southampton in the January transfer window. The Dutchman’s mid-season arrival at Anfield coincided with a vast improvement in Jurgen Klopp’s side defensive record; pre-Van Dijk’s debut they conceded an average of 1.22 goals per Premier League game, compared to just 0.64 per match in the 14 top-fight encounters the £75m centre-back featured in before the end of the 2017/18 campaign.
Van Dijk was signed for a world-record fee for a defender, so his transfer was always likely to overshadow Manchester City’s acquisition of Aymeric Laporte for an initial £57m. Whereas his Liverpool counterpart went straight into the starting XI and was an automatic selection thereafter, Laporte was eased into his new surroundings by Pep Guardiola. The Frenchman made his bow in the 3-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion at the end of January, before starting eight of City’s remaining 13 fixtures in the Premier League. Some of those appearances came at left-back, with John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany also vying for a place in the heart of the defence.
Having now grown accustomed to life in England’s top tier, Laporte has established himself as a first-choice pick at centre-half this term. The 24-year-old has played every minute of every Premier League game so far in 2018/19, as well as starting and finishing both of City’s Champions League ties against Lyon and Hoffenheim. He has turned in some tremendous displays thus far, none more so than in the goalless draw with Liverpool at Anfield last weekend, which was his best performance since arriving at the club at the start of the year.
Guardiola admitted after the top-of-the-table clash on Merseyside that he had intentionally sought to slow the tempo of the match down. “If it is an open game at Anfield you do not even have a one per cent chance,” he told reporters in his post-match press conference. “Up and down they are the best team in the world. Running in these transitions there is no one better. They are built for that, Jurgen [Klopp] is built for that. In that situation they are much better than us.”
That mindset resulted in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with David Silva fielded behind Sergio Aguero and the two full-backs, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, playing more conservative roles than usual; the latter was afforded a certain amount of freedom to push forward down the left as Walker tucked inside to form a back three in possession, but the Frenchman was still more restrained than usual. Riyad Mahrez was selected ahead of Leroy Sane to “give an extra pass”, while Bernardo Silva’s ability to carry the ball through the centre of the park was key.
City initially looked a little rattled in the opening exchanges as Liverpool came flying out of the traps in front of their own fans, but the visitors soon settled into a rhythm and succeeding in controlling the game for long periods. Laporte’s composure was integral to their overall game plan, with the unflustered Frenchman doing a superb job of picking out team-mates with his passing even in the face of heavy Liverpool pressure. The left-footer’s ability on the ball is his standout attribute, but he was also excellent in the more traditional aspects of defending, ensuring City kept Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane relatively quiet throughout.
“We needed a central defender in the summertime, but because we have a lot of games we decided to bring him right now, and in summertime our window will be easier because it will be already done,” Guardiola said when Laporte was unveiled in January.
“He’s a left-footed central defender who has played since a young age in La Liga on the biggest stages. He is strong in the air, [has] good quality with the pass. He is experienced, fast and he has the skills we need. He is the perfect age, 23 years old (now 24), so hopefully he will have a long career here at Manchester City.”
The early signs in that regard are certainly positive, but his recent performances have shown that Laporte is one for the present as well as the future.