While Manchester City’s 3-1 victory over Porto on the opening night of their Champions League campaign may seem routine on paper, a quick view of the highlights will tell you it was anything but.
Pep Guardiola deployed a back four with Eric Garcia partnering Rúben Dias at centre back, and the pair’s performance on the night would have been perfectly accompanied by the Benny Hill Theme (look it up, kids - you’ll know the one).
Both Garcia and Dias looked completely out of their depth as an average Porto side cut through them time after time, while the latter in particular seemed intent on sabotaging his side’s victorious opening night with countless stray passes and rash challenges.
The partnership was just the latest in a long line of defensive concoctions dreamt up by Guardiola as he looks to finally unearth the answer to the problem that is ‘Manchester City without Aymeric Laporte’ - yet the mad scientist seems yet to have experienced his Eureka moment.
However, he might have come pretty close.
City reverted to an unfamiliar back three for their last Premier League outing, with Kyle Walker and Nathan Aké playing either side of Dias against Arsenal, and the youngster’s performance couldn't have been more contrasting to the one he produced in the Champions League just four days later.
The 23-year-old looked calm and assured in possession and was rarely flustered by the threat posed by Gunners frontline.
Meanwhile, Aké’s performance on the left of the back three offered plenty of food for thought for Guardiola.
With City’s wing-backs playing almost as orthodox wingers, there was a danger the former Bournemouth man would be isolated in the wide areas against the pacy Nicolas Pépé. However, the Dutchman looked far from uncomfortable when dragged out into the left-back position, with his pace and strength proving more than a match for the nippy forward.
Walker looked similarly assured, with lethal marksman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang barely afforded a foothold in the game as the England international snuffed out any danger before it had chance to manifest.
With Aké and Walker either side of Dias, the pair’s pace and acceleration saw them adopt a sweeper role when necessary behind the Portuguese defender, meaning he was free to step into midfield on occasions as he looked to play through the lines and beat the high Arsenal press.
Not only did the back three look perfectly balanced with both the left-footed Aké and the right-footed Walker able to receive the ball into feet before opening up their bodies and picking out a pass, the back three saw them able to match up to Arsenal’s frontline man-to-man.
The threat posed by Mikel Arteta’s side was completely nullified by City’s new-look defensive structure, and with the majority of teams in the Premier League adopting a similar three-pronged attack, the formation could prove key in the weeks to come.
The loss of Laporte is undoubtedly a huge blow for City as they look to challenge both domestically and in Europe. However, not only does reverting to a back three offer City extra protection in the absence of one of the best defenders in the league, the addition of Aké and the progression shown by Walker both at international and domestic level shows City have the ideal personnel to offer balance in such a system.
Guardiola’s decision to play with a back four against Porto after his side’s superb defensive display against Arsenal is at best mystifying, and very nearly cost his side three points. However - if nothing else - it should've proven to the Catalan tactician that the loss of Laporte means a back three is imperative, and he has exactly the right players in his squad for his side to flourish in the system.