I will have to say right from the off that Pep took a gamble regarding the right back position in the summer transfer window. I can understand that right back was not our exact priority. There were other positions like the left back and the forward which needed to be addressed on a priority basis. But, even back in the summer it felt as if we were just a Kyle Walker injury away from a catastrophe on the right hand side. You could argue that Cancelo and even Stones can play there, but they are not Kyle Walker. Kyle Walker provides a kind of reassurance that acts as a springboard for our attack. When Walker is playing in the defense, our center backs push high up with extreme confidence. They know that even if an attacker bursts through, Walker is there to rescue the situation.
Cancelo was seen as the perfect cover
The Liverpool match was a perfect example of why Pep was wrong about Cancelo covering for Walker. Cancelo has great skill set and he is almost a complete attacking full back. But, defensively he is not the strongest or fastest. Just imagine Walker on Salah in that Liverpool game. Salah would never have been able to outmuscle Walker in that 1v1 scenario.
Cancelo might have been a right back when we bought him. But, playing all these years on the left hand side, it seems that he now feels a bit out of position and out of touch when playing on the right hand side. An other thing is that when you play on the right hand side as a full back, it is more often than not beneficial to maintain the width, rather than cut inside compressing the space. This was a problem we saw against Liverpool. Cancelo cutting inside from the right hand side meant that we compressed the space ourselves and it suffocated us.
Stones is only perfect as an inverted full back
The match against Leicester showed us how to use John Stones perfectly in that right back role. He played as an inverted full back and was able to control the tempo of the game brilliantly. In fact he carried the ball very well through the congested Leicester defense exceptionally well. But, this has a downside to it as well. There were occasions when Jamie Vardy was also playing very deep and it seemed as if Stones cutting in was compressing the available space even more. It seemed on certain occasions that an overlapping full back could have helped us stretch the game more and create spaces for our runners from the midfield.
In fact i felt that we missed those accelerating runs that Kyle Walker makes on the outside and stretches the opposition defense. So, Stones is clearly not providing you with everything that is required in that full back position. I am not blaming Stones here even for a second. He is giving everything in that role. But, I feel that against park the bus teams, we may need a much more attacking full back to open the knot.
Akanji comes close to Walker
I was thinking about how pivotal the signing of Akanji has been for us. He has settled into the team so well that he has become the leader of that defense. The scenario would have been a lot worse if we did not complete the Akanji signing. Just look at the amount of defensive injuries we have had since the start of the season. It should not be taken lightly that we were so close to a defensive crisis.
Akanji has also filled in exceptionally well at the right back position. The important quality of Akanji is that he is very comfortable going on the outside as well as inverting as a full back. He also has very good recovery pace and he is extremely good on the ball. The one problem for Pep here is that he is an exceptional ball carrier and playing him in that full back role does not let us utilize all of his best qualities to the core. This is one of the reasons why Pep has preferred to play a back 3 on some occasions
I think Pep has managed the situation exceptionally well. He has covered up for the absence of Walker by playing different personnel according to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. But, I do feel that we might need to go in the January transfer window and buy cover for Walker. Last season has shown us that in the final rounds of the Champion’s League, you cannot always get away by playing personnel out of position