Manchester City’s Recruitment – Time to Point the Finger

Written by Andy Wood

Josep ‘Pep’ Guardiola looks shellshocked at the moment – one of the most successful managers in modern football, having guided the golden chalices of Barcelona and Bayern Munich to domestic glory, he now finds his Manchester City facing real adversity. As usual, the surprisingly poor form being shown by City right now has opened the door to scapegoats, with John Stones and Claudio Bravo being notably picked apart for their string of defensive errors over the season. The manager has also come in for high amounts of criticism, with common statements that he has ‘struggled’ or even ‘refused’ to adapt to the higher intensity and competitiveness of the Premier League being referenced at seemingly every available opportunity. In many cases these are fair criticisms – the struggles have been quite apparent for everyone to see – yet one thing that isn’t entirely fair is one group of people who haven’t had to face the same level of scrutiny as their higher profile counterparts. That would be the recruitment team at City, who may well have done a much improved job over the past few seasons.

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There are fairly good reasons why this particular area gets overlooked. For a start, it’s not easy to pinpoint any particular individual to shoulder the blame – recruitment at any club, let alone a financial power such as City, is a busy and complex business. The Chairman, a board member, the manager, a Director of Football, and the many scouts on the clubs payroll will all have an idea about who the best target to spend money on. There are going to be a large number of voices speaking in on one matter- when the end result is a success, there will be a collective pat on the back, but when there’s a misstep someone has to take responsibility. And again, due to his greater public presence, it’s the manager who bares the brunt of it. Although Guardiola has yet to face direct questions about signings, given how recent he is to the job, there will be a knock on effect in how others in this department have performed in the past and so he is still taking some flack on their behalf.

It would also be fair to acknowledge that just about every club has some misses in their signings at some point – a case of nobody’s perfect. And also it’s fair that there have been plenty of very good success stories for Manchester City – more on that later. The point of this article is not necessarily to say that the recruitment team at City have been doing a flat out bad job – simply they should be held to account more than they are for the occasions where City go through poorer periods, as they are now. Since Khaldoon Al Mubarak took over as Chairman in 2008, bringing with him a boardroom of considerable wealth and investment, City have purchased 20 different players for fees of between £10m-£19.9m, 15 for between £20m-£29.9m, 2 for between £30m-£39.9m, 4 for between £40m-£49.9m and a record club transfer for £55m. That’s some considerable squad building in a relatively short space of time, especially considering the stature of the club in the years directly beforehand. It’s brought the club a good level of reward, with two league titles and two domestic cups in that time, although some people still feel there should be more trophies given the outlay, and certainly a stronger continental showing.

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I mentioned above about how there are many different people involved in the recruitment process, and that as such this leads to lot of different voices being thrown about. I definitely think this has been the case at City and that it has sometimes lead to some of their mistakes in the transfer market. In 2008, board member Sulaiman Al-Fahim publicly stated that he had a number of world class players on his radar and that he had made moves to purchase them. One of these players, Robinho, later became the club’s, and the league’s, record transfer for £32.5 million. Two seasons later he was sold back to AC Milan for just £15 million. That same summer of 2010 saw Roberto Mancini glowing about the signing if a young protege he’d worked with at Internazionale – Mario Balotelli. He signed for City for £24 million, and then saw his spell dogged by on and off field controversies, moving again to AC Milan for £20 million. This summer, manager Pep Guardiola made it clear that he wanted to sign goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, and the deal was done for £15 million. His performances, including a number of errors and a very poor shots to save ratio, make him a strong contender for one of the worst signings of the season. Some people will even argue that the public desire of Director of Football Txiki Begiristain’s public courting of Guardiola led to the untimely pushing out of Manuel Pellegrini and that itself has caused some of the recent problems – certainly at the end of Pellegrini’s reign it allowed instability.

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I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing that these individuals have SOME say in the signing of new players- they’re all important people with strong ideas and not including them in the process could lead to a lot more instability. What is important is that there is a clear direction, and that in amongst the sea of voices there is one who has laid down the specifications of what the club needs and uses this alongside the extensive knowledge and recommendations from all his relevant staff to sanction the correct signing – preferably aided by a heavily scrutinised evaluation of each player. At Man City at the moment I would imagine that is the rough job description of Txiki Begiristain, operating as director of football. I would then argue that if that is the case, he isn’t doing an ideal job of fulfilling it. As much as he would need to respect the manager and work with him, rather than dictating what the manager has to work with (itself an impossible situation to breed success in), he also would have to consider his decision making form a wider perspective, considering the needs of the club and team as a whole, and so when Guardiola approached him over the summer and ludicrously stated that he needed a goalkeeper with better passing skills than Joe Hart, it should then have fallen on Begiristain to provide a dissenting voice and recommend more pressing areas of the squad to improve.

Where we see clubs have this level of clear direction in the transfer market, we generally see greater success. This summer Arsenal were very clear on the positions they needed strengthening in – they wanted a central defender, a defensive midfielder (with ‘bite) and another forward to support Olivier Giroud. They signed Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka, and Lucas Perez, and they are currently challenging Chelsea (perhaps in vain) for the title, as opposed to falling down the table. Tottenham were at one point criticised for their own approach to the transfer market, especially with their apparently desperate use of the Gareth Bale income. Since Mauricio Pochettino took charge, there’s been a clearer focus on signing mostly younger players who are suitable for high technique, high pressing style of play – Dele Alle, Toby Alderweield, Son Heung-Min and Victor Wanyama have since improved the team and they are closer than ever to a league title.

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When Jose Mourinho took charge of Chelsea for the second time, it was clear he was signing players he wanted and selling players he didn’t – and even though his judgement of these sales in particular wasn’t always commendable, they came with financial gain for the club and the period then and since has been successful. Yet perhaps the most notable form of successful transfer structure in the English game is at Southampton, a club not renowned for their wealth and investment. Their system involves a secretive ‘black box’ data input system, that configures statistics and player performance analysis of the current squad and a global network of potential player transfer targets, allowing the club to monitor and assess who they bring in to their squad, with Director of Football Les Reed taking charge of negotiations. This has particularly allowed Southampton to find cheap but statistically strong individual players and compete consistently above where their reputation and finances puts them.

What we have seen City do over the years is to make a large amount of big name transfers without it always being very obvious how these will be used to shape the squad. This summer, the need for a dynamic midfielder and extra defender were sensible, but in signing three players of similar attributes and position- Nolito, Leroy Sane and Gabriel Jesus – there are still questions to be raised about how sensibly the money is being spent, especially taking into account the price tags on these players.

This leads on to another notable issue at Man City, and it’s very much a case of a gift being a curse – that is, by having so much money, are City being as frugal as they could over some transfers. Whereas the norm for clubs is to work against a particular budget, often leading to deals falling through when clubs are ‘priced out’, City’s clout allows them to spend on a bigger scale than most other teams, and therefore it’s reasonable to suggest that on many occasions they’ll spend more than is perhaps sensible on a particular player. Whilst this seems like a problem any other club would dream of, sometimes you have to look at a particular purchase and question whether, having the resources available to them, City really could have done better.

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Sometimes it is hard to go wrong and of the five players that the club has spent £40m+ on, clearly it has reaped the benefits where Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne are concerned. This summer though they spent £47.5 million on John Stones – on the face a signing that ticked many boxes. Stones is young, English, has experience of the Premier League and had a reputation as a ball-playing defender. He’d also made the most mistakes leading directly to a goal of any defender in the 2015-16 season – that’s the sort of key statistic that should make someone think twice about spending such a vast figure. For £35 million, Arsenal managed to bring in Shkodran Mustafi – another defender comfortable on the ball, a World Cup winner, and meets home-grown rules through his upbringing at Everton. Seeing the prices of other defenders – Mats Hummels and Samuel Umtiti for below £30m, Kamil Glik for under £10m and Joel Matip on a free, one wonders if City have missed a trick somewhere along the way.

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What also comes with large amounts of money is a tendency to rely on buying established talent, and again this is something that City have done at the expense of developing players over the long term. In 2008 they made two signings for just £6m each- Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany. These two players have gone on to become first team mainstays, and synonymous with this era of success at the club. What’s surely concerning is the lack of players to come in a similar manner since – too often a big money player has poor longevity, leading to something of a revolving door. Surprisingly, there have been canny, lower budget recruits at Man City – it’s just that they haven’t been utilised. How different the current defensive situation would be if Jerome Boateng, a £10m signing himself, had been trusted more as a senior centre back. He is not the only forgotten man there- Loris Karius, Denis Suarez, Stefan Savic and Geronimo Rulli have all gone on to impress in major European leagues. With the establishment of a supremely ambitious new academy structure, City simply must start to prove they can develop as well as buy, to begin the process of really conquering Europe.

Have Man City got their recruitment wrong over the last couple of seasons? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

featured image by Airviews Photography