This is a guest post from Matthew Harris.
With Pep Guardiola’s billing within the English media akin to that of the second coming of Christ during the summer, Manchester City fans can be forgiven for thinking ‘is this it?’ as far as their team’s progress this season is concerned.
Okay, so they have qualified for the knockout stage of the Champions League and are currently sitting pretty in the top four of the Premier League, but the general consensus is that the opening four months of Pep’s reign have been largely underwhelming.
There’s the expensive signings that have yet to sparkle (John Stones, Nolito), the bizarre tactical ploys including the infamous inverted full-backs and slightly less famous 3-6- 1 formation, and a couple of press conference rants that suggest the pressure is starting to get to the Spanish Special One.
Not to worry: the transfer window has slid open once more, and Pep now has the perfect opportunity to energise his largely under-performing squad.
Where Will the Money Go?
With just a quick glance at the league table, you might conclude that the Citizens are going fairly well and are still a decent bet for the trophy. They are only seven points behind a Chelsea side that has won 13 of their last 14 outings, so to still be in touch at roughly the mid-point of the season is encouraging.
But further investigation into the specifics does not bode well. Having invested so heavily in the summer, it is a surprise to see that they are only the fourth highest goalscorers in the Premier League thus far, and boast only the joint-fourth best defence, according to the goals for/against columns. Examination also reveals they are averaging just 5.50 shots on target per 90 minutes (Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool fire in more), and another interesting stat that measures attacking potency – shots from inside the box – shows that City have taken 23 fewer than Liverpool so far.
Defensively, well, you don’t need to be a professor of football to see that the likes of Claudio Bravo and John Stones are struggling to adapt to the demands of playing for one of the biggest clubs in England. Stones in particular is something of a curate’s egg, and how long Guardiola tolerates a centre back willing to try and Cruyff-turn an opponent inside his own penalty area remains to be seen. Statistically, they are yielding 3.00 shots on target per 90 minutes – far too high a ratio – and have shipped 98 shots from inside their own box; a higher count than Chelsea, Manchester United and those Liverpool scallies once more.
So there are inefficiencies in both attack and defence as far as City are concerned – certainly if their wish is to recapture the throne this season, but their main malfunction has been their inability to land a punch on their main rivals for the title in head-to- head dust-ups. Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool have all taken advantage of one or more of their flaws, and it is only their 2-1 win over Arsenal (they were 0-1 down at half-time too) that spares their blushes. Even so, three points from twelve in games against the rest of the top five is simply not good enough.
There’s lots to be done in the window then, and with his side failing to hit the heights – particularly in big games – don’t be surprised if Pep Guardiola opens his rather weighty chequebook in January.
The Famous Five
It is plainly obvious that the Spaniard needs to recruit one, maybe two centre backs in January, and he may even bring in a pair of full backs as well. You get the impression that Bacary Sagna and Aleksandr Kolarov aren’t going to help City achieve their goals this term.
So here are five potential transfer targets for him to go after:
Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus)
January will be a time for action, and while traditionally we attribute the transfer window to expensive panic buys, what a measured statement of intent it would be for City to land one of the most consistently excellent centre backs on the planet.
At 29, Bonucci is probably in his peak years as a defender, and fits the bill for a Guardiola signing: tough and rugged in the air and in the tackle, but with a certain grace and elegance in possession.
The transfer window will be integral to City’s plans of continental domination this term, and Bonucci would represent an outstanding acquisition.
Virgil van Dijk (Southampton)
Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, but the reasons why Pep signed Stones ahead of the infinitely more classy Virgil van Dijk remain a mystery to everyone apart from him.
The Southampton centre half is 6ft 4in, so can handle the physical requirements of the English top flight, but is a class act with the ball at his feet too; he is more than happy to step out and act as the launchpad for an attacking raid.
The Dutchman may lack experience at the elite level, but he would be available for approximately half the price spent on Stones; sometimes, the numbers really do add up.
David Alaba (Bayern Munich)
There was more than a mere hint of surprise that Guardiola didn’t revisit his two former clubs, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, for new recruits in the summer, and if he had done then surely the name of David Alaba would have featured high up on his shopping list.
The Austrian can play at left back, centre back or in midfield, and seems to be equally accomplished in any of those roles: he has made six assists for Bayern this term, averages 1.40 shots per game and boasts a pass success rate of 86% (a key Guardiola metric), and yet defensively he ticks every box too.
It’s no wonder Pep called Alaba ‘a God’ during his time in Germany.
Thiago Alcantara (Bayern Munich)
Thiago, a player that Pep knows well, has been a revelation in the Bundesliga this term, and has been one of the unsung heroes in Bayern’s rise to the summit.
Metronomic midfielders who offer something in both phases of play are at a premium these days, but this Spaniard fits the bill: he has bagged three goals and as many assists, and yet nobody in the division has made more interceptions (4.40 per 90) than the 25-year- old.
Alcantara has even trousered a hat-trick of Man of the Match awards in 14 starts, meaning that he outshines every other player on the pitch in roughly one in four outings. That’s a happy knack to have at your disposal.
Naby Keita (RB Leipzig)
Followers of German football will already be aware of the exploits of RB Leipzig this season. The side promoted from Bundesliga II last season have cut through the top flight like a particularly hot knife through butter, and at the halfway mark they sit second just three points behind leaders Bayern.
One of the key components of their rise has been Naby Keita, the energetic midfielder who harks back to the old-fashioned box-to- box merchants of yesteryear: an essentially attack-minded player who arrives late in the box and causes havoc. Four goals, two assists, 1.2 key passes per 90 minutes and 2.9 completed dribbles per match speaks volumes of his ability.
With Ilkay Gundogan injured, Fernandinho spending more time on the naughty step than on the pitch and Yaya Toure seemingly semi-retired, City are in desperate need of energy in the middle of the park. Keita could be the answer.