John Stones, Leroy Sane, Nolito, and Toni Kroos are the four conspicuous names doing the rounds in the grapevine columns, as Manchester City transfer targets. If reports of City pursuing the signatures of the aforementioned quartet are indeed true, I think Txiki Begiristain and even Josep Guardiola’s Manchester City transfers policy is wrong.
The 2015/16 Capital One Cup winners are the sixth most valuable football club in the world, with a value of £1.33billion. There is no shortage of revenue as far as City are concerned, and they are not in the Financial Fair Play (FFP) leash either. However, money needs to be spent prudently and on good players. If City just try to sign the top names and starlets with the potential to become top players, without a clear blueprint for their pursuits, then they might regret their decisions and more importantly, not have the squad they would ideally like before the start of the 2016/17 season.
The emphasis has to be on recruiting players for the positions where replacements are mandatory, either due to the shortage of players or simply because certain positions need reinforcing. Looking at the updated City roster, there are quite a few positions which need to be recruited for. Again, positions, and not players, have to be the basis for recruitment during the 2016 summer transfer window, which begins on July 1, 2016.
With that in mind, let us analyse the positions for which Manchester City transfers must happen. Read on…
Manchester City transfers policy
Before delving into the vacancies in the City roster and the positions which need to be reinforced, the imperative is to look at the core of the squad and the second string players.
City players who are a part of the squad’s core
- Vincent Kompany (C)
- Joe Hart (GK)
- Nicolas Otamendi
- Bacary Sagna
- Ilkay Gundogan
- David Silva
- Kevin de Bruyne and
- Sergio Aguero
The core players of the squad are those who will invariably be a part of the starting XI when they are fit.
Elucidating on the above list of core players, the goalkeeping position is Hart’s and although Victor Valdes (a free agent) and Ederson Moraes (Benfica) have been suggested as the second-choice goalkeeper targets, the 29-year-old Englishman is the most likely starter when fit. Period.
Kompany and Otamendi, who is probably ahead of Eliaquim Mangala in the pecking order, would be the first-choice centre-backs. Sagna enjoyed a wonderful 2015/16 season, personally, as City’s first-choice right-back and that is unlikely to change – unless Sagna’s performance level drops – in Guardiola’s first season as Manchester City manager.
There are a few formations Guardiola could deploy City in and 4-2-3-1 is one of the most likely systems I expect City to line-up in next season, under the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager. In which case, Fernandinho and Gundogan would form the double midfield pivot, ahead of the backline. Both these players are chock-a-block with energy and fall into the category of “box-to-box midfielders”. The Brazilian enjoyed a stupendous 2015/16 campaign for City and is one of the nominees for the Etihad player of the season award. Gundogan has been brought in to transform City’s playing style, which will emphasise on high-pressing, high-intensity and ultimately a fluid approach.
de Bruyne, Silva and Aguero will undoubtedly make up three of City’s front four in the 4-2-3-1 system.
Second string players in the current City squad
- Willy Caballero (GK)
- Pablo Zabaleta
- Gael Clichy
- Aleksandar Kolarov
- Yaya Toure
- Fernando Reges
- Fabian Delph
- Raheem Sterling
- Jesus Navas
- Samir Nasri
- Kelechi Iheanacho and
- Wilfried Bony
Second string players are those who are unlikely to start while the core players of the squad are fit.
We need to wait and see how many of the second string players in the City squad are utilised by Guardiola relatively regularly, but the recruitment has to be done on the basis of low-priority players.
Kolarov, Delph, Bony, Nasri, and Navas are likely to be the low-priority players who will start and play the odd game, but be on the bench or even not make the 18-man matchday squad consistently.
The reason Y Toure has become a second string player is because Gundogan has joined City and the German is likely to be one of the first names on the teamsheet. The imperious Ivorian midfielder found himself consigned to the substitutes’ bench towards the final stages of the 2015/16 season and even if he remains at the Etihad for the upcoming season, he is highly unlikely to regain his place in the core of the squad. Fernando, we are hearing, will be a part of Guardiola’s plans and even he is unlikely to be a regular starter for City. The two left-backs’ futures are uncertain.
Sterling is considered to be a Guardiola-type player who will also thrive under the tutelage of the Spanish manager. But, if City pursue and secure the signatures of Sane and/or Nolito, will the English winger still be indispensable? I do not think so. Navas, Nasri and Bony’s places in the City squad are up in the air too.
Positions which need reinforcements
Having seen the players who are part of the City squad’s core and those who fall into the second-string category, we can now analyse the positions where City need to strengthen.
The goalkeeping position is not a ‘priority’ position, at least in the 2016 summer transfer window. The backline too is unlikely to be a priority position. But, since Martin Demichelis has been released, the fourth centre-back slot is vacant. We do not yet know about Guardiola’s plans for the fourth centre-back slot, but Everton’s Stones has been strongly linked and considering that the 22-year-old is a ball-playing centre-back, he will be a good fit for the style (Barcelonaesque) City want to play. Stones’ acquisition would, however, keep the likes of Jason Denayer and Tosin Adarabioyo, City’s youth products, out of the first team for another season.
In the right-back position, Sagna will be a definite starter when he is fit, with Zabaleta playing second fiddle to the Frenchman. The spirited Argentine’s form has dwindled over the last couple of seasons, during which Manuel Pellegrini preferred to go in with Sagna when opposition teams had the Neymars, Franck Riberys and Angel di Marias in their starting XI against City in the UEFA Champions League. Even in his first season at the club, Pellegrini dropped Zabaleta for certain European games and injected Micah Richards into the City starting XI. Guardiola might decide to keep Zabaleta, who has not been great at defending 1v1 tussles over the last two seasons – during which he has been turned inside out easily even by some of the Premier League wingers – and have him deputising for Sagna. City were linked with Sassuolo’s Sime Vrsaljko not-so-long-ago, but we have not heard much about this story since the beginning of June. Begiristain and Guardiola should, however, look to strengthen the right-back position and not ignore recruiting for it.
At the other end, we do not exactly know what is going on and whether City want to reinforce the left-back position, where, like the right-back position, the Blues have two players in their 30s and not up to the Champions League level. Kolarov thrived to an extent during Pellegrini’s reign and started more games – the former Lazio left-back started more Premier League games than Clichy, in two of the Chilean manager’s three years at City – than the former Arsenal man. But his defensive ability has not improved despite consistently playing for City over the last three campaigns. Clichy is quicker than the Serbian and is more suited to the high-pressing style we expect Guardiola to implement, but is the Frenchman better than Kolarov? Well, giving an outright answer to such a dicey question would be hard – an indication of the lack of quality in the left-back position and the subsequent need for reinforcement.
Although Paul Pogba was and now Kroos has been linked, I think City have a good crop of central midfielders at their disposal. Toure has become a peripheral figure and if Fernandinho and Gundogan remain fit, they are likely to start 70% of City’s games. And, unless Guardiola opts for the 4-3-3 system or the 4-1-2-1-2 system, Toure is unlikely to have a place in the City starting XI. But he can still do a job from an entire season’s perspective. Fernando’s performances during the latter half of last season were very good and he seemed to have added a lot more attributes such as taking on players successfully, carrying the ball forward and scoring goals as well, to his game, rather than just show off his slide tackling skills. His partnership with Fernandinho has brought City important victories in the Champions League – the 0-2 victory vs. Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, the 2-2 draw and 1-0 victory vs. Paris Saint-Germain at the quarter-final stage last season, being the most obtrusive – and given his experience, the 28-year-old could be persisted with for at least one more season. So, central midfield simply does not need reinforcing.
Further forward, in the middle and final thirds of the pitch, City’s recruitment has to be precise. They have only three top players for four positions in the 4-2-3-1 system. Pellegrini believed in having two top players for each position, with City playing close to 60 games during a season. From that vantage point, City, we are saying, need eight players – the number which, however, will make at least three players redundant. In addition to de Bruyne, Silva and Aguero, City have Nasri, Navas and Sterling for the remaining attacking midfielder spot, while Iheanacho can play as a striker or a right-wide player cutting in on his left foot.
Following the goal fest of the 2013/14 Premier League title-winning season, City have struggled to score goals freely. They scored 83 in the 2014/15 season, 12 more than what they mustered last campaign, but the fact is City have not been a free-scoring side. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been linked to City for a British record transfer fee of £65million. The Borussia Dortmund striker would make City a more incisive unit in the final third and of course, as has been suggested, alleviate the goal scoring responsibility on Aguero. But other than the French-born Gabon striker, who else could City possibly target?
Sterling could do a job for City upfront, but he continues to be too profligate in front of goal and can not be relied upon just yet. Also, if City need to score more goals, the central and attacking midfielders have to contribute too. Toure was at his very best during the 13/14 campaign, in which he scored 14 goals in the Premier League, while Silva (6), Nasri (5) contributed to City’s final tally of 102 goals, as well. Can the Silvas, Sterlings, Nasris, and Navases weigh in with goals? If they do, City will definitely prosper.
There is a huge gulf in quality between the players who are part of City’s core and those who are in the second-string category. And, if City want to be world beaters, they cannot afford to have such a massive drop in quality.
Another aspect we cannot afford to overlook is, the constantly emphasised ‘holistic’ approach and integrating the academy players into the first team. In Iheanacho, City have a huge asset and the likes of Manuel Garcia, Brandon Barker, Bersant Celina, and Angelino, are the starlets who seem ready to make the step up. But if City keep hunting for the big-money signings, I am afraid the aforementioned quintet will find first team opportunities far-fetched for the upcoming season at least. The audacious move, on the part of Begiristain and even Guardiola, would be to make no more than a couple of more signings – a right-back and an attacking midfielder – and start injecting the Angelinos, M Garcias and Celinas into the first team picture. Because, if City don’t get these players playing for the first team in the upcoming season, then when can they?
City’s recruitment, as we have emphasised repeatedly, has to be based on positions. And, from that viewpoint, right-back and left-back are the high-priority positions where City must strengthen. No. 11 and No. 9 have to be the next set of priority positions for which City must recruit during the upcoming July-August transfer window. And, they have to ensure that their quest for high-profile signings does not annihilate the leeway to integrate the academy and youth products into the first team.