Left empty-handed in the last seconds of the summer transfer window, Pep Guardiola’s hunt for a new defensive midfielder is set to continue a while longer. City Xtra takes a look at the most likely candidates to complete the Catalan’s tactical jigsaw.
Not so long ago, it seemed like Manchester City had found the keys. Having pulled their shining Centurions car onto the drive, all they needed to let themselves into their dream home at the top of ‘Premier League Boulevard’ was to rummage around in their considerably well-lined pockets, and unlock the door.
However, this was never going to be a short-term stay for manager Pep Guardiola. In the pursuit of perfection, the Catalonian coveted an extended residence at the peak of English football, and to do that, a vital piece was missing. To the uninitiated, it may well sound preposterous to say that Manchester City lack anything given their record-breaking feats and unfathomable funds, but when discussing the Catalan masterplan, a team that is near-perfect is not perfect enough.
Concealed by the brilliance of midfield general Fernandinho, there remained a hole in Guardiola’s blueprint for Premier League domination. As accomplished as the Brazilian may be, his talents were finite, the departure of Yaya Touré making clear that the 33 year old was left as City’s only true defensive midfield option. Without cover, Fernandinho would face a daunting task of playing almost every game for the Blues, despite carrying the strains of an exhaustive league campaign and deep World Cup run.
With City’s midfield general in urgent need of a deputy, attentions turned to a player Guardiola had become an admirer of during the 2017 UEFA Champions League group stage. Jorginho, a Brazilian-born Italian who then commanded Mauricio Sarri’s Napoli, caught the Catalonian’s eye with his intelligent ball distribution and incredible composure. Indeed, the Napoli fulcrum had such incredible touch and pass statistics in Serie A that he had earned comparisons to the great Andrea Pirlo.
The motivation was clear. Though Yaya Touré’s departure was a certainty come the end of the season, Jorginho’s expected arrival was never as a direct replacement. Instead, the Italian fit another bill, one which when objectively looking at Guardiola’s Barcelona and Bayern Munich teams, was clear to see.
In Spain, there was Sergio Busquets. In Germany, it was Xabi Alonso. Wherever Guardiola has managed, he has personally entrusted a defensive midfielder with enforcing his tactical execution, the player key to the Cruyff-inspired legacy of juego de posición, or ‘game of position’, wherein the onus lies in the orchestration.
Jorginho was to be that player.
However, City had unwittingly stepped into one of the most protracted transfer sagas in their history, and before the board knew what happened, the Italian metronome had followed his footballing father figure Sarri to Chelsea Football Club. The rest, as they say, is history.
Persuading the perfect player
With City’s foremost midfield target now plying his trade in a darker shade of blue, the 2018/19 season took no time in getting underway. As was to be expected, a long season and a World Cup campaign with Brazil saw Fernandinho take a while to find his feet, looking noticeably drained in his first few matches. Following that however, City’s newly-dubbed “Master of the Dark Arts” returned to his imperious best, with top performances and precise tackles rolling in as routinely as ever.
Nothing good lasts forever though, and with the arrival of the winter fixture list, concerns quickly became reality as City’s 33 year old bastion faced crucial time on the sidelines. Expectantly, Guardiola’s team suffered, losing pivotal games to both Leicester and Crystal Palace that threatened to end hopes of retaining the Premier League before the turn of the new year.
Whether reinforcements arrive in this January transfer window or in the summer, it is inevitable that Guardiola will give the order for another midfielder to join the ranks of Manchester City Football Club. However, who that might be is another question entirely.
A metronymic mastermind like Busquets? A pass master like Jorginho? A modest yet cynical sh*thouser like Fernandinho? We cannot know for sure, but over the next few days, we’ll take a look through some of the best options across the world’s best leagues.
First up is…
Julian Weigl – Borussia Dortmund, 23
There was a time when if you knew of Julian Weigl, you felt you were part of a distinguished club. As Thomas Tuchel’s first recruit in his stay at Borussia Dortmund, the young German had accompanied his new manager in bringing a new energy to Signal Iduna Park, just when the club’s distinctive underdog fervour had seemed to be slipping away.
As the youngest-ever captain of previous side 1860 Munich, it was clear that Weigl had potential. But having arrived in Dortmund aged just 20, it probably wasn’t expected that the boy BVB sporting director Michael Zorc had labelled as a “future prospect” would so quickly become a man of the present, prematurely called to action due to the high profile injuries of midfield stars Nuri Sahin and a certain Ilkay Gündogan.
From there on it was onwards and upwards for Weigl. Once he had that all-important opportunity for first-team involvement, it was clear that there was little to keep him out of the team. Indeed, having earned 25 starts in 30 league appearances in that maiden Dortmund season, Weigl finished the year with a 92% pass accuracy, which was not just the best in his own team, but amongst the highest in the Bundesliga.
This was largely Weigl’s story until the winter of 2017. Almost three full seasons at Dortmund and you could see why he was being linked with Guardiola, his subtle technique and passing vision distinctive of a player still only 23 years old. Toni Kroos had even singled out Dortmund’s pivot for special praise.
Yet almost as soon as Manchester City had become linked with Weigl in the winter of 2017, things took a turn for the German. His development seemed to stagnate for the latter half of the 2017/18 season, whilst a thigh problem saw him ruled out of Joachim Low’s World Cup squad.
Further bad news was to come though, as new Dortmund boss Lucian Favre opted to sign Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel. Falling concurrent with Weigl’s own injury problems, a newly formed double pivot of Witsel and Thomas Delaney has proved highly successful in this 2018/19 season, with Dortmund currently topping the Bundesliga whilst playing some of the most exciting football in Europe.
As a result, Weigl has drastically fallen down the pecking order with only 3 starts in 17 league games. The second, a surprise start against Bayern Munich in ‘Der Klassiker’, only emphasised the German’s fall from grace, his rather sheepish substitution at half time arguably allowing Dortmund to change their style of play and rescue a historic victory over their bitter rivals. The third and most recent meanwhile, against third-place Borussia Mönchengladbach, was damning in a different fashion; despite playing 90 minutes, Weigl was at centre-back.
By far the greatest problem now facing Weigl is a lack of playing time. Were he a more experienced player, there might be a greater temptation for City to take advantage of his discomfort and even make a move within the current January window. However, the current lack of opportunities for the German means that whilst he undoubtedly remains a talented footballer, he is unlikely to convince Guardiola and co. that he is worth the investment.
City Xtra score: 5/10
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Be sure to check back tomorrow when our midfield mystery takes us across the English Channel, to a certain historic club in the east of France…