Following last season’s treble triumph, there was every expectation that City would continue to dominate in the following season. While very far from bad, performances and several results have dropped from the standards seen in the first half of 2023.
Reasons have been provided, ranging from complacency and a lack of hunger in the squad to the injuries to key players in Kevin de Bruyne and John Stones. Then there’s the view that this is part of genius Pep’s season planning, where he makes a few tactical tweaks, the players peak in the second half of the season and City pick up the trophies.
Hopefully this comes to pass, but it’s remarkable how little scrutiny has been given to the other key factor – the mess that was City’s summer transfer window.
Even calling it a mess will be heresy to some, so let’s break down the reasons why.
City’s main midfield target heading into the summer was Jude Bellingham. The only good news about missing out on the golden boy was we knew early on that he was heading to Madrid, giving plenty of time to source alternatives.
The focus switched to Declan Rice, where Arsenal had already shown him a clear role and let him know he was their number one target. Their bids backed that up while City, offering the player a less clear role, didn’t fancy the bidding war.
James Madison was reportedly on the list of players City had an interest in. By the time Gundogan had decided to leave, Madison had long since signed for Tottenham for £40m. It was deep into the window and prices were duly escalating when City alighted on Lucas Paqueta, who they had looked at previously when he was at Lyon. The price was heading for a whopping £80m, when that deal fell through due to his gambling charges.
Now we were really dropping down the list of potential signings, with clubs unwilling to sell so late in the window. This seemed to scupper the interest in Eberechi Eze, before a Matheus Nunes deal appeared possible. His agent being Jorge Mendes with whom City enjoy good relations may or may not have been a coincidence. Nunes was another player from the list of those previously scouted.
Somehow City had gone from Bellingham to Nunes, signing on the last day of the transfer window for £55m after an underwhelming season with Wolves.
Meanwhile, the club had allowed current players to dictate their own possible departures. Gundogan, Mahrez, Silva, Walker, Phillips – would they stay or would they go?
Cancelo and Laporte were the only ones who looked sure to leave. This made sense as Cancelo hadn’t featured in the successful second half of the season and Laporte was essentially being replaced by Gvardiol.
It’s hard to think of another club which allows first team players and their agents so much freedom in deciding whether or not they leave. I get that Pep doesn’t want unhappy players around the place, but saying it’s simply up to a player’s agent to bring in a decent offer results in those agents hawking their players around for much of the transfer window, while City miss out on potential replacements.
Rival teams were signing players while City’s plans were effectively on hold while we waited to find out who was leaving. For example, if Walker left we might need to buy a full-back, reducing the budget for a number 8.
Then there was Cole Palmer. A mess so bad it required a separate article. In short Palmer was expecting a loan earlier in the summer to somewhere like Brighton, giving him the regular game to prove himself. City could then bring him back to replace Mahrez or sell him – which, with his form this season, would well exceed the £40m Chelsea paid. However, City didn’t let him go whilst they were unsure about what was happening with Mahrez. He eventually left and City had to stump up for a new winger late in the window, as Palmer wasn’t considered ready. Palmer saw a repeat of last season’s limited opportunities, so it was loan or sale time. With City’s net spend going rapidly up, selling Palmer to part fund a midfielder was City’s decision. Goodbye Cole Palmer (£40m), who creates and scores goals. Hello Matheus Nunes (£55m), who does neither.
Let’s next have a look at the senior players we did sign:
The signing of Kovacic for £25m from Chelsea, who were delighted to move him on, was straightforward enough. While the Croat had been flagged up early as a squad signing, he still felt a bit underwhelming. Sure, he has those Champions League medals, but I seem to recall Modric and Kroos being the key midfielders for Real at the time.
For someone noted for his surging runs, Kovacic seems very one paced. He isn’t strong enough defensively to play as a number 6 and has never chalked up many assists or goals. At 29, these things are hardly likely to improve. As a signing, he feels more like Nolito (who recently came bottom in a list of Pep’s City signings), another 29 year old who never looked to be at the elite level of those around him and wasn’t likely to improve.
In the first half of the season, Nunes has completed a full Premier League match just once. We’re again hearing the line that it takes players time to understand Pep’s methods and it can be the following year before we see him regularly. Somehow I don’t think we’d be saying that about Jude Bellingham. In a different way it didn’t apply to Kalvin Phillips and Pep has described Nunes as a player for the “big spaces”, ie. when the game is open and stretched. Fair enough, the only thing is that’s the type of game Pep hates and the manager sets up his sides to avoid it whenever possible.
We were told this summer’s signings were brought in for their ball carrying abilities, which was to be the thing this season. It’s still not clear where Nunes and Kovacic fit in a Guardiola side.
Put simply, Pep plays a defensive midfielder, who has a huge amount of responsibility and two “free 8s”, who create and get a few goals themselves. Bernardo Silva with his energy levels, technique and super footballing brain is the only one who gets to play as an 8 without getting the assists or goals. Nunes isn’t at Silva’s level.
Both Nunes and Kovacic aren’t defensively strong enough to be trusted by Pep as a 6. Neither are they creative enough to play as an 8. So where do they fit? It’s not apparent, particularly with Nunes. Bellingham or Paqueta would have played as 8’s, even though they’re a little different to what we had, they’re both creative and Bellingham is a goal scorer.
Nunes and Kovacic are miles off the likes of de Bruyne and Foden in terms of goals and assists.
From the season so far, Nunes looks like a panic signing at the end of the window, when other targets were missed. It’s the kind of thing associated with United in recent years.
Doku has clearly made the biggest initial impact. He’s electric and his take-on stats are incredible. There are still two caveats to his success. First is his end product, which can be erratic. Reading about his development, this has always been the issue and along with injuries was probably the reason why he wasn’t at a big club already.
The second caveat sums up City’s whole window. Doku was signed as the replacement for Mahrez on the right wing, yet from his first game it was clear that he was better suited to cutting in from the left under Guardiola’s system. He’s rarely been seen on the right since.
The player signed to replace Mahrez thus turned out to be the player who displaced Grealish. In the days of elite level scouting, you’d have thought someone at City might have realised this.
Of course City have Foden and Silva to play on the right wing, yet Foden is showing his best position is in the middle (remember how we were hearing that’s where Foden would be playing this season), while Silva has often produced crucial performances in the middle, particularly against the likes of Liverpool. Having also let Cole Palmer go, City are now without a player whose best position is on the right flank and are being linked with moves for Pedro Neto at Wolves or Michael Olise at Crystal Palace in the summer. Either of whom will likely cost more than the £40m we got for Palmer.
Meanwhile, £100m Jack Grealish has been finding himself back on the bench a lot more. All those generous words from Pep about his importance in controlling possession seem a lot less convincing when Doku repeatedly gets the nod to start in his place.
Gvardiol was one of our main targets and we got him, so all is good there. Not so good is his defending at left-back, which hasn’t been at the level of Ake. He’s yet to be trusted by Pep to play in his regular position of centre-back and at the moment a defence with Ake at centre-back and Gvardiol at left-back is looking less secure than Laporte at centre-back and Ake at left-back.
Similarly, a left flank of Gvardiol and Doku has been a gift to opposition counter attacks compared to Ake and Grealish last season.
On the plus side, Gvardiol is more comfortable on the ball than Ake or Laporte and he’s rightly viewed as a long term signing. Looking at him it’s easy to forget he’s two years younger than Alvarez.
With Stones and Ake injured, the form of Dias and Akanji suffered when they were required to play every game. Laporte would have walked back into the side numerous times this season, when clean sheets have been such a rarity.
City’s midfield refresh
City’s central midfield refresh over the last two summers has seen Phillips, Nunes and Kovacic arrive for a total of £120m. Frankly that’s terrible, particularly in the modern era of in-depth scouting. Only Kovacic appears to be trusted by Pep, without truly convincing.
City’s bad summer was compounded by Pep’s decision to start de Bruyne in the opening Premier League fixture at Burnley after playing a mere 30 minutes in pre-season. Even de Bruyne said he was surprised to start. Duly injured and out for the rest of the year, it’s noticeable how the talk around City has focussed on how things will be alright when de Bruyne and Stones will return.
De Bruyne has been injured in the past. The difference then was players like Gundogan and Mahrez would step up and he wouldn’t be missed. That hasn’t happened this season as the new signings aren’t good enough. It says everything that Rico Lewis, a teenage full-back, has been used in de Bruyne’s position of right sided number 8. Much as we like Lewis, he’s never getting near de Bruyne’s numbers for assists and goals.
FFP in play
All clubs make bad signings and the advantage for big clubs is the ability to ride out the duds financially. In recent years United have made an untold number of bad signings, but they were always able to spend again. While being a lot less profligate, City have been able to do likewise thanks to the ownership. That’s changing now with FFP being properly enforced and clubs having to limit their spending to avoid points penalties.
Allied to advances in scouting, it’s now apparent that shrewd recruitment is a big difference maker in a club’s performance. David Moyes recently admitted as much when asked why West Ham were performing better in the league this season, despite losing Declan Rice. He cited the signings of James Ward-Prowse, Mohammed Kudus, Edson Alvarez, who have all had a positive impact.
With rivals using global scouting effectively, and less room for error financially, their is more pressure than ever to get signings right. Spaffing £100m on Phillips and Nunes eats up a sizeable chunk of City’s financial rewards for the winning the treble.
Ins and outs summary
(Fees taken from Transfermarkt, hence in euros)
Cole Palmer €47m
Riyad Mahrez €35m
Aymeric Laporte €27.5m
Carlos Borges €14m
Ilkay Gundogan €0
Shea Charles €12.2m
Romeo Lavia sell on clause €14m
Joao Cancelo (loan)
Others players sold €12m approx
Total: €179m / £152.7m
Josko Gvardiol €90m
Matheus Nunes €62m
Jeremy Doku €60m
Mateo Kovacic €29m
Total: €241m / £205.6m
Net spend €62m / £53m
Net spend excluding Cole Palmer €109m / £93m
The risks of a small squad
It’s well documented how Pep likes a small squad. The reasoning is quite straightforward. Everyone plays a part and being actively involved keeps them motivated. The obvious risk is inadequate cover for injuries and fatigue for those playing twice a week.
Pep’s solution to the former is having technically and tactically high level players who can play in multiple positions and cover for absentees. This works a treat. Allied to this is Pep’s love of control in games. This enables City to dictate the pace and slow things down when required. It may not always be high intensity heavy metal football, but it enables City players to get through fixtures with less energy expended. Controlling possession also means players are throwing themselves into challenges less often and these factors can help to explain why City appear less prone to injury crises than other teams.
The issue this season is that the first team group is so small that a few injuries result in less quality cover and other first team players have seen increased fatigue.
Pep remains at the cutting edge of modern tactics but he isn’t perfect in every regard and his man management can be distinctly old school. In a typical season, Pep examines his squad, then makes some tactical tweaks as he goes along to get the best out of the squad. A settled side can then go on a winning run. The downside for players who aren’t part of that team are they can feel left out in the cold.
Pep’s response is that he doesn’t like to see “long faces” in those left out and if they’re not happy they can leave. Great in principle, but when perfectly good players are left out due to no fault of their own, after a while they inevitably become unhappy, and Pep is often happy to see them go.
Sometimes, as Pep’s tactics evolve, a player can come back in, as we famously saw with John Stones and this season with Kyle Walker. More often the player gets fed up and their agent is off to arrange a deal.
As a result, the summer of 2022 saw City lose Raheem Sterling, Oleks Zinchenko and Gabriel Jesus along with Fernandinho. The first three were all in their mid twenties and this creates some headaches for the age profile of the squad down the line, given City retained 30-somethings Mahrez, Gundogan and de Bruyne.
The summer of 2023 then saw City lose Laporte, Gundogen, Mahrez and Palmer from the first team squad, along with Cancelo on another loan.
This has put a lot of pressure on City’s recruitment with the new players needing to hit the ground running. Something which rarely happens as players adjust to life under Pep.
City’s first team squad is now down to 22, but of those 6 players (Ortega, Carson, Gomez, Bobb, Nunes and de Bruyne) completed a Premier League game on 2 occasions combined in the first half of the season (Ortega and Nunes played one each). Even with de Bruyne is back, City are reliant on a mere 17 players.
When playing big games twice a week in the second half of the season, that simply isn’t enough to allow for injuries and fatigue.
A replacement for Phillips was essential, but never on the cards after the deadline day splurge of £55m on Nunes.
Curious lack of criticism
While the decision to sell Cole Palmer has sparked plenty of debate, there has been precious little questioning of City’s summer window overall. Sure, plenty of fans were frustrated in the summer at the prevaricating of players leaving and the uncertainty over incoming targets, but in the wider media there has been little. Imagine if United had sold their two right flank players and replaced them with someone who turned out to play on the left? We’d have a field day. Similarly, the non playing Nunes hasn’t provoked the same outcry we saw with Phillips, despite costing significantly more.
Why is this? Well, the team are doing ok and the faith in Pep’s genius to come up with a solution and repeat his trick of going on a winning run in the second half of the season makes potential critics think twice. The idea of City as an indomitable machine is a powerful one.
City have two huge assets in Pep and the Academy, where Oscar Bobb is following Rico Lewis in plugging gaps in our recruitment. Pep can make poor recruitment look good – remember how he turned Otamendi from a first season liability into a relatively solid defender.
Maybe our previous recruitment successes have blinded people to the failings of the last summer window. The reality is that City will need to do a lot better next summer.
Bear in mind Real Madrid will likely be welcoming Mbappe after beating us to Bellingham last summer, City can’t afford any more slip ups if we want to keep up with the Spanish giants.
With age catching up with de Bruyne, it will take a high calibre signing to take over his mantle. Florian Wirtz is one who is reported to be on City’s list along with a return for Paqueta if he is cleared from any alleged misdemeanours. It’s a big ask for any one player.
After the farce of replacing Mahrez and Palmer with Doku who’s most effective on the left flank, City are now in the market for a right winger. The pacy Neto has been linked, which is slightly surprising given he looks most effective in transitions rather than the controlled possession type approach play of Mahrez and Grealish.
City were linked with Olise last summer and his excellent delivery would better suit Haaland who has openly admitted to missing de Bruyne’s crosses this season.
No doubt we’ll pay more than the £40m we got for Palmer, so the pressure will be on to get someone who can at least deliver comparable numbers.
Rodri back up
Hopefully things go well for Phillips at West Ham and City can get a decent price for the England international. It’s then over to the recruitment team to find a replacement. Again it would be nice if they can find someone better than Romeo Lavia, who we sold before seeing him play regular first team football.
With Gvardiol not always convincing defensively at left-back, it will be interesting to see what happens in this position – something we seem to say every year. Sergio Gomez may well decide he needs to move for regular first team action.
Keeping hold of Ortega will be a challenge. If he goes, then he’ll need replacing.
Maybe now will be the time City take a player or two back from the high flying Catalans. Yan Couto and Savio are the two most likely. Whether they would be at the level where Pep trusts them enough to feature regularly would be the question.
Bernardo Silva is the perennial concern and there was talk of a £50m release clause in his latest contract. That sound worrying, but it’s worth bearing in mind that he’ll be 30 in August and very few clubs pay that amount of money for older players these day. Harry Kane was the exception last summer, but Silva doesn’t exactly bring the goals and star quality of the England captain.
Elsewhere, it should be an easier summer in terms of outgoings. Cancelo, Phillips, Ortega and Gomez are the only senior players likely to move. Surely Bobb will be kept after what happened with Palmer. There’s a decision to be made on James McAtee and other young loanees. Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Callum Doyle are the leading candidates for players we could regret selling. De Bruyne will have interest from Saudi, but doesn’t seem especially interested in going. We need to be sure we can cope without him before letting him go.
In conclusion, the key lessons for next summer can be summarised as:
- Secure first choice targets and if we have to move on, do it quickly and don’t compromise on quality.
- Determine who is staying and who is going at the start of the window. No more Gundogan’s, Silva’s and Walker’s letting their agents trawl for deals all summer. Key players need to commit.
- Avoid looking for new players late in the window; prices go up while quality goes down. Maybe City were overconfident after the success of Akanji, but the missteps of Nunes and Gomez should provide a greater warning.
- Don’t get carried away with selling the very best youngsters to fund signings; see how they cope with regular first team football first. Lavia for Phillips, Palmer for Nunes, no more of this.