It was a long-term, ideological pursuit and could pay off in time, but Pep Guardiola’s summmer recruitment drive is not doing Manchester City much good right now, writes Richard Jolly.
It was a new high. Manchester City had welcomed Pep Guardiola and parted company with around £165 million in a transfer window. Combine the most coveted manager in the world with the biggest spending spree in the history of English football and it promised to be a recipe for glory.
It certainly looked so when City started the season by reeling off 10 successive wins in all competitions. It may yet prove so over the course of Guardiola’s three-year contract. Yet now, as City have slipped from first to fourth in the Premier League, won only one of their last five Champions League games and exited the EFL Cup, the relationship between expenditure and excellence looks increasingly indirect.
City can look in need of reinforcements, a damning statement after an extraordinary outlay. Guardiola’s transfer record can be questioned before his most exciting arrival, Gabriel Jesus, has even actually arrived. When seeing the fault lines in the City defence, it can be tempting to wonder where the money went.
What it highlights is a purist’s reluctance to adopt a policy of pragmatic purchasing that would have offered the promise of greater success this season. Guardiola bought less out of necessity than ideology. He conformed to principles, acting with a romantic’s instincts rather than a realist’s hard-headed assessment of where improvement was most required.
He signed four wingers while leaving City lumbered with the four thirty-something full-backs whose shortcomings, in most cases, had already been advertised. He bought a goalkeeper, in Claudio Bravo, to suit a passing philosophy, but one who looks an inferior shot-stopper to the exiled Joe Hart. He brought in one defender, in John Stones, but now, with Vincent Kompany unsurprisingly injured again and Nicolas Otamendi suspended for Saturday’s trip to Leicester, the Englishman is the only senior specialist centre-back available. Having taken over a team who conceded 1.07 goals per league game last season, he has one letting in 1.07 now.
It illustrates Guardiola’s emphasis on attack, his preference for possession and a potential failing in his planning, whereby insufficient attention appears to be paid towards defending, but the money has not made a difference.
The same can be said in individual cases. Leroy Sane cost £40 million. He is the most expensive German ever which, given his country’s tradition of success, is quite some accolade, but the probability is that City would have no fewer points without him. He has no goals and two assists, both for Kelechi Iheanacho goals: a largely irrelevant injury-time strike in September’s 4-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach and a more meaningful equaliser against Southampton, but which owed more to a Fernandinho pass than Sane’s centre. In his defence, he has been injured and, lost among the drama of a ludicrous game, attacked with verve and incision against Chelsea last week, yet no player of his cost has delivered as little in the Premier League this season.
But Sane was identified because he belongs in the select group who can conform to Guardiola’s vision of a player. It is a common denominator. Ilkay Gundogan is a technical talent who has excelled at times, but City have been at their most devastating when Fernandinho, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne were the trio in the centre of the pitch, not him. Stones’ confidence in possession is encouraged by his manager and some criticism of him has been overblown, but he gifted Southampton their goal in what proved a damaging draw.
Like Sane, Stones offered potential, something to excite the educator in Guardiola. Certainly in an industry where short-termism is institutionalised, the Catalan should not be condemned for taking a long-term view. He signalled that by making Gundogan his first signing even though the injured German would miss the start of his reign.
Some managers buy aiming for an immediate impact. Guardiola is their antithesis. Jesus, Marlos Moreno and Oleksandr Zinchenko were bought at 19 and loaned out, Sane signed at 20, Stones brought in at 22. Only Gundogan, who came at 25, Nolito, 29 when purchased, and the 33-year-old Bravo, were recruited at or near their respective peaks.
It is one reason why the Chilean offers most scope for Guardiola’s band of detractors. With his propensity to wave shots past him, he has been an expensive downgrade, a vanity project who makes those irritated by Joe Hart’s arrogance nostalgic for his goalkeeping.
City’s recruitment was flawed long before the Guardiola’s appointment, whether by Txiki Begiristain’s propensity to pay over the odds and history of signing Eliaquim Mangala or Manuel Pellegrini’s preference for ageing Spanish speakers. When hiring the Catalan, it makes sense to let Guardiola be Guardiola and pursue his idiosyncratic path.
Long-termism is not a flaw in itself but the sense that City could have done with another centre-back, a better goalkeeper and at least one new full-back points to the problems with ideological buying. It speaks of confused priorities. It does not always address the major needs. It threatens to be the £165 million spending spree that costs City the title.