Manchester City have spent more than £300m on defenders in four years under Pep Guardiola and yet defenders remain at the top of this summer's shopping list.
City’s backline, not for the first time, is in desperate need of an overhaul.
That much was made obvious over the course of the 2019/20 season. City’s defence of their Premier League title effectively ended the moment Aymeric Laporte suffered a serious knee injury early in the campaign.
Without the Frenchman, their backline just wasn’t strong enough to keep ahead of Liverpool.
It’s not just in central defence where Guardiola is seemingly unhappy with what he has. Manchester City are widely expected to be in the market for a new left back this summer, and possibly even a new right back if Joao Cancelo can be moved on.
That Cancelo is seen as dispensable just a year after his £60m arrival from Juventus is illustrative of how demanding Guardiola is of his full backs.
Some may argue that the Catalan coach has been wasteful with such a level of talent. In Cancelo and Kyle Walker, Guardiola has two of the most naturally talented right backs in the Premier League and yet there remains the suggestion that they could be replaced this summer, with Benjamin Mendy, a £52m signing just three years ago, almost completely written-off at left back.
So what does Guardiola want from his full backs and his defenders in general? The Catalan coach values technical ability above all else. He wants his centre backs, for starters, to be pass-masters just as he wants his goalkeepers to be the same.
They are not merely defenders, but the first line of attack.
Laporte is the Premier League’s most prolific passer of the ball, averaging 92.8 average passes per 90 minutes this season. For context, Virgil van Dijk only averaged 84.8 passes per 90 minutes over the 2019/20 campaign.
John Stones isn’t too far behind with an average of 82.6 passes per game, explaining why Guardiola has shown patience with the Englishman when others would have been exiled for making so many costly mistakes. Eric Garcia ranks highly too with 83.2 passes per 90 minutes, again explaining why the young Spaniard has been favoured in recent weeks and months.
Nicolas Otamendi ranks lower in this regard. What’s more, the Argentine’s positioning often means opposition sides can cut City open when they attack Guardiola’s side at pace in transition. Otamendi will almost certainly be moved on this summer, but whoever comes in to replace him must be of the right mould otherwise the change will have been for nothing.
It’s not all about passing. Pace is also a very important attribute to Guardiola when it comes to defenders, particularly full backs.
He likes his defensive lines to be extremely high up the pitch. On the occasion that the high press fails and a pass is played in behind, City’s defenders have to be able to recover to prevent opponents from making it into the box.
So who could they target to satisfy Guardiola in the way few have until now?
Nathan Ake (Bournemouth)
Only two Bournemouth players made more passes per 90 minutes than Nathan Ake in the Premier League last season.
Despite this, the Dutch defender averaged just 1.8 long balls per 90 minutes, hinting at his preference to keep possession on the ground. Ake is quick, mobile and made more blocks than any of his teammates over the course of the 2019/20 campaign.
He couldn’t be blamed for the Cherries’ relegation.
David Alaba (Bayern Munich)
He was once considered among the game’s best left-backs and now David Alaba is one of the best centre-backs in Europe.
The Austrian averaged more passes per 90 minutes (86.7) than any other Bayern Munich player this season, hinting at just how important he has become to the way Hansi Flick’s side play out from the back. He also averages five long passes per 90 minutes, revealing his natural urge to quickly spring counter attacks.
He would be perfect for City, and of course Pep knows him well.
Ben Chilwell (Leicester City)
Speculation swirled for much of the 2019/20 season that Ben Chilwell could end up at the Etihad this summer with City reportedly on the look out for a new left-back. This term the England international made 1.3 key passes per 90 minutes, which is more than any of Manchester City's full-backs.
Chilwell is an attacking outlet down the left and would give Guardiola the sort of mobility he craves.
He’s odds-on at 1/3 for a move to Chelsea but you suspect City would have every chance of landing him if they made a serious bid.
Nelson Semedo (Barcelona)
City are widely believed to be open to the notion of selling Cancelo this summer and with Barcelona reportedly interested it has been raised that Nelson Semedo could head in the opposite direction.
The Portuguese right-back is behind only Lionel Messi, Ousmane Dembele and Frenkie de Jong for dribbles (1.5 per 90 minutes) this season. It’s this directness that could see Guardiola drawn to him.