It might not be the line you expect halfway through a conversation with a footballer, not when the tape is running at least, and it’s probably not exactly the line you want to hear either, but there it is. Aymeric Laporte is sitting at Spain’s Las Rozas training camp, surrounded by photos of the men who, like him, have represented the national team and talking about his famously forthright coach Luis Enrique – “the best there is answering questions” – when he drops it. “Footballers,” he says, “almost never tell the truth.”
Oh. And what about you? Are you telling the truth now? There’s a smile. “Yes,” he replies. If that is a relief, it has already been amply revealed. Laporte talks about players being conscious of getting “laid into for everything”, “controlling themselves” and only saying “the right thing”, “what people want to hear”, but there’s little sign of him doing the same; instead, there’s an unexpected honesty, a directness about him, an edge even. An assuredness, a willingness to say “actually, no”, kick back and point out what’s wrong, to apply a little perspective.
Time, then, to defend Manchester City. It’s his job after all, one he does well – even if he’s not sure everyone else sees it that way. These are quiet days, the calm before the storm, an opportunity it turns out to address not just the way the game is played but the way it’s perceived. He is in Spain for two friendlies before returning to two meetings with Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final and the league, another chapter in a very modern rivalry, and the Champions League quarter-final against Atlético Madrid.
There is much at stake; more than seemed likely not long ago, the threat of “failure” reappearing. A league that seemed done is now one they must fight for, no margin for error against a resurgent Liverpool who have won nine in a row. As for Diego Simeone’s side, there was something about Old Trafford and past meetings too that sees them pitched as exactly the kind of opponents Pep Guardiola’s team struggles with. So?
So what? If that’s the theory, it’s not one Laporte accepts, even if he’s aware that it’s increasingly expressed. The suggestion that Atlético might have been best avoided is dismissed with a swift “quite honestly, no” and he insists: “I’d call this an opportunity. A chance to show we’re better than all those other teams.”
It’s an opportunity he stands at the heart of, leading where he didn’t before. “Basically, because I had a bad time of it last year,” he explains. “Covid didn’t help on a mental level. The absence of fans, not seeing family and friends. A year and a half without visitors, PCRs every day, changing in your car, pfff. Some were fine but, I don’t know, it affected me more. That’s an excuse, but it’s how I felt. And others played well; they’re very good players. Given the chance, I did well but not enough to have continuity.
“City can’t be afraid of anyone,” he continues. “Something like this happened a few years ago: [Liverpool] were a point behind in the same week, and in the end we won the league. We have this fight now and that’s good for the fans, and neutrals.”
Even when he’s asked whether there’s anything City could take from Liverpool for his team, the short answer is no. The long one is this: “The football we play, no one else plays in the world. We’re an example of how to play nice football, to be superior in all areas. I think they’d like even part of our game. As for us having something of them: taking chances and benefiting from opponents’ errors a little more, because often we have the opportunity and don’t take it. We let the other team off. But there’s nothing to be envious about.”
No? That analysis invites a reflection: how far are those moments when City don’t turn domination into victories accidental, how far by design? Have City paid for the failure to sign a No 9? And are the risks inherent in their game – risks Laporte raises unprompted, admitting “sometimes I think we want to do things so well it goes against us” – too great? Is there a case for pragmatism, the lost Champions League final evidence for the prosecution?
“No, I don’t think so,” Laporte says, insisting that City’s approach, shared by Spain, is neither improvised nor puritanical. Nor, he says, is their success explained exclusively by economics. And if the approach brings risks he suffers on the pitch, he prefers it that way, a costly error against Crystal Palace and completing 110 of 110 passes against Everton two sides of the same coin.
“We don’t have to change our style for anything in the world. For all that another team comes and does something else, we have a thought-out strategy. People don’t appreciate that. The analysts and coach work on it a long time ahead of the game. It can then work out well or badly. In the last four years there have been loads of semi-finals and finals: many we’ve won, others we’ve lost. It’s football.
“If a forward’s not scoring, he drops to support teammates, helping other ways. Maybe an out-and-out striker who scores more would touch the ball much less. You gain something and lose something. I’m not worried about that. We’ve been winning for years without a reference up front. At the back, we have ever more responsibility in building play. Wanting to play so much can work out very well or very badly. The odds are against you in that if we lose the ball there it can cost a goal.
“You need a pair of balls to do that and not be afraid of making a mistake. You expose yourself but it’s what Pep asks of us and it hasn’t exactly gone badly. People talk but that’s what’s asked of us. I like to dare. City have conceded the fewest goals. Although we can make mistakes, I don’t think it’s as bad as people say, or as some seem to want to make others think because they don’t like City.”
Is that how it feels? That people are waiting for City to fail? “You notice that,” Laporte says. “Maybe it’s not that they’re tired of us but they don’t think it’s normal we always win. If I’m not mistaken, we’ve won 11 trophies in four years [in fact 10 across the past four seasons, including two Community Shields]; that can annoy people, like our neighbours who haven’t won anything. They have a lot of supporters, we’re in the same city. It’s hard [for them] to understand. But there’s only one winner. They’ve spent a lot of money too.
“We’re humans, people have to understand that: just as we beat United, we lost to Palace. You can’t explain that with money. However much a player costs, that doesn’t mean he’s going to be the best. It’s not an exact science. We’re leaders, a point ahead of Liverpool. We have the best defence – and [yet] people throw defensive issues at us. I don’t want to imagine what our neighbours …”
There’s a pause. “At times, that annoys players a bit, but that’s society. We have played a lot of finals, won a lot of trophies, picked up a lot of points: 100, 98 … it’s incredible, una barbaridad. But people always want more. And they seem to think the other side aren’t playing. Only one team can win. Look, I like playing this way; the problem isn’t the style; the problem is that society blames you, basically.”
There must be moments when you’re itching to reply, then? Are there things people don’t appreciate, times you think, ‘If only they knew …?’; things we don’t get from the outside?
“Loads of things,” Laporte says, “but I’m starting to realise even ex-footballers don’t understand: they don’t get it either. The last few weeks I’ve seen things … I can’t explain how they can answer like that. I’m not sure if society takes you to a point where there’s a need to be noticed which means you have to come out with rubbish [burradas] but whenever anything negative happens it’s talked about more than something positive.”
There’s something slightly sad about the portrait being offered, a sense of Laporte saying what some other players only think. Football is supposed to be fun, success celebrated, but this sounds like victory brings relief more than joy. “You’ve nailed it,” he says. “We do this because we love football, but it’s our profession and there are many things outside of football, its context, that prevent you from being as happy as you ought to be, to live your life.
“Thing is, if you criticise a player these days, you don’t hurt him. Tell me I’m a paquete, useless, and I laugh. The problem is when your mum or your dad reads it, or someone who’s known you all your life reads that you’re a bad person. Why do people talk so badly about you? Or there’s a mistake, and … People think footballers should be like on Fifa: that the pass goes there by itself, that players and the ball move, that we have time to think. Until you’ve been out there, you don’t realise how quick it is.
“Do you think us players want to make mistakes? Do you really think that you take a penalty and want to miss it? You miss and, tut, it’s: ‘paquete’ or whatever. We have to appreciate the person who gets it right rather than focus attention on the player who makes a mistake; he’s always the one up on the big screen. Why? Why is it about blaming him, not praising the guy who got it right? But, look, that’s the risks that come with the game and the way society is.”