Pep Guardiola would be the first to accept he has an obsession with midfielders.
”I’d like,” he once said while coaching at Bayern Munich, ”to have a thousand midfield players in my squad.”
Manchester City is doing its best to facilitate Guardiola’s dream.
Harry Kane’s announcement Wednesday that he was staying at Tottenham – for now, anyway – brought an end to City’s months-long pursuit of the England striker that had slowed to a crawl in recent days.
With less than a week before the summer transfer window closes on Aug. 31, City is running out of time to find a new striker to replace the departed Sergio Aguero in its squad for the season.
With Kane no longer an option, Guardiola may prefer to not push for one – although there is increasing speculation about a move for Cristiano Ronaldo, who is reportedly unsettled at Juventus – and bid for the biggest trophies with a team of midfielders this season.
After all, Guardiola has previously done that.
Just last season, City’s march to the Premier League title and a first Champions League final, where Guardiola’s team lost to Chelsea, was achieved primarily without a striker in its first-choice lineup. Aguero regularly had injury issues and Jesus wasn’t fully trusted in the big games, notably in the knockout stage of the Champions League.
For the first two matches of City’s Premier League title defense, Guardiola has started with Ferran Torres – naturally a winger – as a center forward and declared Gabriel Jesus to be more at home as a wide player, with the Brazil international having excelled on the right wing in a 5-0 thrashing of Norwich on Saturday.
It leaves Liam Delap, an 18-year-old with one Premier League appearance to his name as a late substitute, as the only player in City’s squad who could be termed an out-and-out striker. And don’t expect him to feature too much this season, either.
Does that leave City too light up front at a time when Chelsea, perhaps the biggest threat for the title this season, has just spent $135 million on a world-class striker in Romelu Lukaku?
Guardiola clearly wanted to sign Kane – he said as much in a news conference – and might be miffed that City’s board didn’t do more to bring him to Etihad Stadium. According to widespread reports, City didn’t go further than an initial bid of 100 million pounds ($139 million) that was rejected out of hand by Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy, regarded as one of the toughest negotiators in soccer.
It raises the question if there ever was a serious desire among City’s Abu Dhabi ownership to spend big again after breaking the British record to sign midfielder Jack Grealish for $139 million in early August.
Surely signing Kane, rather than Grealish, should have been the priority given the gap in the squad following Aguero’s departure.
”Absolutely – more than happy,” Guardiola said last week about the shape of his squad. ”It’s the same team, except for Jack Grealish and Sergio Aguero, that we had last season.”
If anyone can make this work, it is Guardiola. His desire for control in matches means he puts more emphasis on midfielders than any of his peers.
In some matches last season, seven of City’s 10 outfield players were natural midfielders, given that the player who finished the campaign as the first-choice left back – Oleksandr Zinchenko – plays in midfield for Ukraine and has only been converted to a full back by Guardiola. Another full back, Joao Cancelo, ended up being pushed into midfield as an extra playmaker. And then there’s goalkeeper Ederson Moraes, who has a better passing range than many outfield players in England’s top division.
Ilkay Gundogan, Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva are center midfielders or wingers to have operated as a false nine at some stage last season, when City was the top scorer in the league by 10 goals (83 total).
And Grealish said upon being presented as a City player that he had spoken to Guardiola about being used as a ”false nine.” He appeared to start there in the 1-0 loss to Tottenham in the opening round before dropping deeper.
Who knows what formation Guardiola will come up with for Saturday’s home match against Arsenal. The only thing that’s clear is there will be plenty of midfielders on the field at Etihad Stadium, just as he likes it.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80