It’s not been a good past few weeks for City in terms of defensive personnel. Firstly, Aymeric Laporte was ruled out until January at least and only recently did John Stones join him in the medical room and would be missing at least four to six weeks of action. All of that has seen Fernandinho deployed as makeshift centre-back, with the Brazilian impressing in the role in City’s 3-0 win over Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday. It’s widely thought that Guardiola would go in hard for centre backs come January but what happens to two young options that could solve it all in Eric Garcia and Taylor Harwood-Bellis?
While these youngsters might not have the “star” statuses, they do have interesting profiles and have already put themselves in line to cover for Guardiola amidst the current defensive scenario.
Who is Eric Garcia?
Eric Garcia is a highly-rated 18-year-old who was snapped away from the Barcelona academy last summer.
The Spanish centre-back was a big figure of the Under-18s side which won the Under-18 Premier League Cup and also reached the FA Youth Cup final.
Garcia made his first-team breakthrough after he was handed his senior debut in City’s Carabao Cup quarter-final win at Leicester in December and went on to make several more appearances as per Transfermarkt.
The youngster has shown huge traits of maturity and has been praised severally by Guardiola. So promising he has been that the Catalan born boss was quoted by the Guardian saying:
“Eric Garcia is 17 or 18 and played like he is 24 or 25,” the Catalan coach said after City faced Borussia Dortmund last July, and he was so impressed by what he saw he brought it up again six months later.
“He has a lot of personality,” Guardiola said at the King Power Stadium. “In pre-season in the States he was incredible, commanding the line against Bayern Munich and Liverpool. He’s a guy that has a lot of sense of the position.”
That maturity has been evident to everybody involved in City’s youth teams over the past year, and it was no surprise to them when the then 17-year-old began barking orders at his senior team-mates during his first appearances with Guardiola’s squad in pre-season last summer.
When Guardiola was quoted by Manchester Evening News saying:
“We have three centre-backs who can play there and we have two young players in the second team who can help us.”
Taylor Harwood-Bellis was the second youngster alongside Eric Garcia the City boss was referring to.
And as per the same source, it’s said that he has impressed Guardiola with his work in training and assured passing from the heart of defence so far.
He played in six games on Manchester City’s run to the FA Youth Cup final, where they were defeated on penalties by Liverpool.
The 17-year-old was one of the few youngsters called up to Manchester City’s pre-season tour after impressing with the club’s youth and reserve teams last season, scoring four goals in 34 appearances.
Why they will be ideal solutions for the defensive crisis
The absence of Stones and Laporte would mean Guardiola is now down to one fit central defender in Nicolas Otamendi.
Fernandinho will, of course, come in alongside Otamendi but with games in the Premier League, Champions League and Carabao cup sandwiched in-between, teenagers Garcia and Harwood-Bellis would be ideal options to come in.
Between now and the final week of October, the six-week period Guardiola could be without John Stones, City play Watford, Everton and Wolves in the Premier League, a Carabao Cup trip to Preston North End and a Champions League home game against Dinamo Zagreb. City then complete the month of October with fixtures against Crystal Palace, Aston Villa and a Champions League clash against Atlanta in the midst of that (via mancity.com).
While the Norwich game showed anything is possible, on paper City would be expected to win the above games and what better time for youngsters to come in than a decent and less asking schedule of fixtures. Also the hectic congestion of fixtures would mean a 34-year-old Fernandinho would ideally need a breather, opening the room for one of Garcia or Harwood-Bellis to come in.
When you consider that starting November (the time which Stones should return), City play Liverpool on the 10th and Chelsea in less than two weeks from then. Ideally, if both players have not gotten starts/decent game time by then, chances might look slim as City would undergo a tough run of fixtures and would also play both Manchester United and Arsenal in December. Guardiola would not want to risk the inexperience of both youngsters in such a crucial period and that fact makes it more the reason they should be given a chance now more than ever.
City can take solace in the fact that their academy is already bearing results in that of Phil Foden on the first team and with other notable academy grads succeeding elsewhere like Jadon Sancho at Borussia Dortmund. So it’s safe to say Pep Guardiola has had a successful spell with the academy and there’s no reason to suggest these youngsters won’t follow the same path.
Speaking long-term, Otamendi and Fernandinho (who can slot in at centre back) are both above 30 years of age – 31 and 34 respectively. Leaving Stones and Laporte both aged 25, the only pair of Guardiola’s centre-back options below 30. And when you further realize that the former is more or less injury-prone, the lack of centre back options could be one to haunt Guardiola in the nearest future, even if he does get away with it at the moment.
Also, with the way the transfer market has transformed, the big money signings of Van Dijk and Harry Maguire have shown good defenders would not come in cheap anymore. And with City still being investigated for financial fair play rules, it would be reasonable to cut off unnecessary spending as much as possible – especially on defensive signings when Garcia and Harwood-Bellis are waiting to emerge.
Drilling them slowly into the first team now would mean by the start of next season, they would have morphed into prime candidates for the centre back role and could even provide proper competition for Stones and Laporte, knowing that a slip up would see them easily replaced by one of these youngsters.
Then talking about how they could impact the squad. City have looked vulnerable from set-pieces over recent time as eight of their last 11 goals conceded in the Premier League have come from set-pieces, with four of them coming from corner kicks (via BBC) – meaning Guardiola would ideally want a defender with a good height that could help strengthen such aerial frailties.
While Taylor Harwood-Bellis might not have the maturity and calm of Garcia, who does stand at only 5’9″ (as per Transfermarkt), the former does make up for that with his 6’2″ frame which could give him the upper advantage for consideration into first-team action.
Either ways both teenagers would have a positive impact if they do get a proper chance under Guardiola.
Taylor Harwood-Bellis, alongside Eric Garcia will add youthful cover at centre-back and with Manchester City looking under-staffed in this position, their emergence could spare Guardiola the need to sign a central defender this summer or even in the January window
Over the summer, City were strongly in the hunt for £80million-rated Harry Maguire, who later ended up with rivals Manchester United. But why cough out that much when they may already have very capable centre-back in-house options in Eric Garcia and Taylor Harwood-Bellis.
The Premier League champions might be in a defensive crisis but Guardiola could already have the solutions at his disposal and even better that they won’t cost a penny.