London- “I have high confidence we are going in the right direction. I am very excited about how we are developing as a team, how Pep has taken the squad and really started a process of going through that natural cycle of development.”
Khaldoon al-Mubarak, Manchester City chairman, May 2017
In August Pep Guardiola embarks on a defining second season as the Manchester City manager. After finishing third in the Premier League and being knocked out of the Champions League at the last-16 stage he cannot fail again.
Guardiola can read the above comments and be reassured of Mubarak’s support but he knows patience will wear thin if City are not contenders in both competitions as effectively demanded by Mubarak in the same interview.
The pressure is increased by the record spending Guardiola hopes to oversee. In summer 2009 Real Madrid spent £218m, with Cristiano Ronaldo at £85m the headline arrival to follow Kaká (£56m) and Karim Benzema (£31m).
Guardiola could pass that amount with an outlay that may reach £220m-plus and he could spend a quarter of a billion before the window closes on 31 August, especially if the club’s confidence over signing Alexis Sánchez proves well-founded.
There is, though, a glaring irony at work here. Guardiola is the attack-only coach (to paraphrase him) whose hopes of achieving success rest on defence, which is why he aims to sign three wide defenders. The left-back Gaël Clichy (aged 31) and the right-backs Pablo Zabaleta (32) and Bacary Sagna (34) have been allowed to leave. Critics might assert their departures come two years too late, given their age and obvious decline, and Guardiola should have addressed the problem when taking over 12 months ago.
If that and the calamitous exiling of Joe Hart in favour of Claudio Bravo as goalkeeper were the glaring mistakes of a first season in charge, Guardiola is determined to make amends.
The world record for a goalkeeper came close to being broken with the €40m (£34.69m) paid to Benfica for Ederson. Now Guardiola’s focus is on full-back. Brazil’s Dani Alves is expected to arrive on a free after his release from Juventus. Guardiola is also pursuing another right-back, Kyle Walker from Tottenham, and the Monaco left-back Benjamin Mendy.
Alves was bought by Guardiola for Barcelona in summer 2008. The 34-year-old has vast experience and a winning mentality. He has won six La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues, two Uefa Cups, five Copa del Reys, one Serie A title, one Coppa Italia and one Copa América, plus 100 caps. At 27 Walker has won little but is the England right-back and nearing his peak. He would be expected to push Alves for a starting place.
Alves and Walker offer the attacking potency Guardiola craves. So too Mendy, the 23-year-old who was part of the fine Monaco side who dumped City out of the Champions League in March. If the France left-back signs he would slot straight into the first team.
Add this trio and City will be transformed from a lop-sided squad to one with a surfeit of riches front to back.
At No9 the 20-year-old Gabriel Jesus, a rising star, would vie with Sergio Agüero. The attack’s support cast would be drawn from a clutch of top players: Leroy Sané, Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Raheem Sterling, and Bernardo Silva. In central midfield Ilkay Gündogan, Yaya Touré and Fernandinho are a trio of high-class playmakers and stoppers.
Central defence is the other area that requires strengthening. City dropped out of the bidding for Virgil van Dijk only when Southampton set the 25-year-old’s price too high. The need for a centre-back arises because Nicolás Otamendi and Aleksandar Kolarov are questionable deputies. Guardiola does have the rejuvenated captain, Vincent Kompany, plus the huge potential of John Stones as a first-choice partnership.
Between now and 1 September Guardiola has much surgery to perform. He is only two players into the rebuild and elite transfers are never easy. Yet his reputation plus City’s financial muscle is a combination many players will find hard to resist.
The combined £79m paid for Ederson and Silva is the opening outlay. The minimum £45m each for Walker and Mendy would take the sum to £169m. If the going rate for an established centre-back has risen to around £55m (Stones was an initial £47.5m) then Guardiola will have splurged £224m even before the cherry-on-the-cake addition of Arsenal’s Sánchez (£50m) or Monaco’s Kylian Mbappé (£100m–plus). Purchase one of these and Guardiola would shatter the £250m mark.
The corollary is the increased expectation all of this heaps on the manager. He is conscious of having being granted a season’s grace. Last season he reminded himself more than once that the axe is never far away. In mid-May Guardiola went further by admitting that at previous clubs, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, he would have been sacked.
The truth is stark: a manager who has won two European Cups, three La Liga titles, two Copa del Reys, two German doubles and a further Bundesliga has won zero for City.
Guardiola is being given strong backing by Mubarak publicly and financially. He dare not fail.
The Guardian Sport