Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley
One respected journalist described Riyad Mahrez as a “talented schmuck scooped up in a Manchester City transfer simply for the sake of it”.
He explained further that City did not need to sign Mahrez but they did so because they could.
Pep Guardiola claims the hardest part of his job is leaving out good players but it is a necessary part of the job if City want to win trophies.
So who is right? Pep Guardiola, naturally.
Spreading the talent
It seems strange to criticise Manchester City for strengthening their title-winning team by signing one player during the summer transfer window, especially considering the departure of Yaya Toure, even if he was of little use during his final season.
No team has successfully defended a Premier League title since 2009, and a prime reason in recent years has been the poor recruitment by champions. Manchester City’s signing of the likes of Scott Sinclair, Jack Rodwell, Maicon and Javi Garcia in the summer of 2012 immediately springs to mind.
The thinking that Mahrez is not needed by City is probably linked to the abundance of talent the club already possess in wide areas. This rather overlooks, however, the fact that the City squad only has two main strikers and that the Guardiola philosophy relies more on fluidity in attack and stretching the pitch.
The Catalan usually fields one striker – Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus have played together in small patches but not regularly – and supports the striker with two wide players and two midfielders with attacking intent.
With the development of Bernardo Silva as a central midfielder, Mahrez is one of three top class wide players, the same as last season. That’s not too many.
This talent spread across attacking positions is one reason City are unlikely to house a golden boot winner anytime soon.
There is an argument from some City fans that the summer purchase should have been a striker and not another wide player (Roberto Mancini had four strikers at his disposal). But in a team that normally plays with one recognised forward, how do you sign a big name whilst being unable to guarantee regular football?
Depth for a long season
On top of this, to state the obvious, players get injured.
City fans will be well aware of this. Their team spent most of last season playing a midfielder at left-back, David Silva missed a chunk of the season for personal reasons, Sergio Aguero was involved in a car crash and many other natural injuries hit the squad, as you would expect during a nine-month period.
For any team looking to challenge for multiple trophies, each season is long and arduous. Manchester City can expect to play over 50 games next season. Successful cup runs would bring that total close to 60.
Guardiola has repeatedly stressed his desire for two great players for each position on the pitch. This is his dream scenario, if not always attainable, and it makes sense if City are to avoid burning out at the ‘business end’ of the season.
In addition, there is the issue of age. David Silva is 32 now, as is Vincent Kompany. Fernandinho is 33. There can be no guarantees that these players are capable of playing week-in, week-out, nor that they will maintain their high standards forever.
After all, many think that City’s failure to land Jorginho in the summer as an alternative to Fernandinho could prove costly and that the squad still has the odd weakness in it. Time will tell.
Rotating a deep squad
But with the strongest of squads at his disposal, the challenge for Pep Guardiola is how to rotate players whilst maintaining squad harmony and keeping egos in check.
Whilst it may hurt Guardiola to leave players out, a man so driven, a man so desperate for perfection, will not hesitate to make tough decisions. All players at City will know that a failure to be picked for a match is not a punishment and should not be taken as a slight.
Guardiola will rest every player in the squad at some point, for their own good and the team’s. Any player that is talented enough and dedicated enough knows they will play at least 30 times a season, fitness permitting.
What big players may struggle to deal with is not being picked for the biggest matches. With a full squad, Guardiola undoubtedly has tough decisions to make, decisions made on tactical grounds above all else.
It’s a nice position to be in for a manager, even if it requires an arm or two round a disappointed player here and there.
A clear transfer structure
City have bought young talent over the past couple of years and, for all the flak flung their way at how much they have spent, they bought these talents just before the transfer bubble expanded once more. How much would the likes of Ederson, Leroy Sane or Gabriel Jesus fetch in the transfer market now?
Stockpiling talent just because you can would be a waste, depriving fans and players alike the chance to see all the best players on a weekly basis whilst stunting development too. However, there is little evidence that this has happened at Manchester City.
Since Guardiola’s arrival, transfer business has been concise, targets have been clear. All players have come in to make a difference, to take the team up a level – and last season suggested the club’s transfer strategies have worked.
There is another solution, which would be to bring through youth products as an alternative to big-money signings. Fans love a local lad breaking through, or any youth product.
For Guardiola, there is no doubt, as testified by the emergence of Phil Foden, that if a youth player is good enough, they will get their chance.
This has to be balanced though by the need for instant success in modern football. Guardiola is under pressure to win the league, to win the Champions League, to get 100 points, to break records. There’s always something that pressures him to play his best team.
Ahead of the curve
City have been after one more wide player for over a year now, so the acquisition of one in the summer should not surprise, nor annoy.
Guardiola feels the squad needs reinforcing in this area and he usually knows best. After all, it is only through player purchase and development that Manchester City have stayed ahead of the curve for so long now.
When City are winning titles every season and adding Champions League trophies to their cabinet, then perhaps we can question whether they have too many good players.
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