The cost again

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - JAMES DUCKER -

An­other trans­fer win­dow opens to­day and, once more, Manch­ester City find them­selves in the mar­ket for a cen­tral de­fender. They are mak­ing an un­for­tu­nate and costly habit of it. Pic­ture the kid play­ing hook-a-duck at the fair­ground who keeps go­ing back to his ex­as­per­ated dad to ask for more money in the hope of fi­nally land­ing the prize he craves, and that gives you some idea of the game Txiki Be­giris­tain, City’s di­rec­tor of foot­ball, has been play­ing with Sheikh Man­sour bin Zayed al Nahyan’s cheque­book.

An un­healthy £124 mil­lion has been spent in the past 2½ years in search of a rem­edy to a cen­tral-de­fen­sive ail­ment Be­giris­tain (below) seems in­creas­ingly un­able to cure and, if you be­lieve some re­ports, City could be ready to chuck an­other £50 mil­lion at the prob­lem in an ef­fort to en­tice Vir­gil van Dijk from Southamp­ton.

Be­giris­tain is a cu­ri­ous case. He flies al­most en­tirely un­der the radar and yet it is hard to es­cape the feel­ing that, but for a close friend­ship with Pep Guardi­ola that en­abled him to de­liver on his prom­ise of lur­ing the world’s most revered man­ager to east Manch­ester, he might have strug­gled to hold on to his job for so long. His strike rate in the trans­fer mar­ket would, in crick­et­ing terms, be enough to make any bowler shud­der, al­though there seems to be a par­tic­u­lar blind spot when it comes to com­mit­ting sig­nif­i­cant funds to sign de­fend­ers, a fail­ing that pre-dates his ar­rival at City more than four years ago. Any Barcelona sup­porter who wit­nessed the suc­ces­sion of ex­pen­sive de­fen­sive flops that came and went at the Nou Camp over the seven years Be­giris­tain was sport­ing di­rec­tor is un­likely to reg­is­ter much sur­prise at the pat­tern un­fold­ing at City. For Eli­aquim Man­gala, a £42 mil­lion re­cruit from Porto in 2014 since shipped out on loan to a Va­len­cia side toil­ing near the foot of La Liga, read Dmytro Chy­gryn­skiy at Barcelona. The Ukrainian cen­tre-half cost £22 mil­lion from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2009 but made just 14 ap­pear­ances be­fore be­ing sold at a £9 mil­lion loss 12 months later.

Or, for Ni­co­las Ota­mendi, signed for £32 mil­lion from Va­len­cia last year but whose very name evoked me­mories of Rio Fer­di­nand tak­ing to Twit­ter to im­plore the Ar­gen­tine to “stay on his feet” af­ter an­other brain­less lunge, think Martin Cac­eres. Be­giris­tain had Barcelona pay £15 mil­lion to bring him in from Vil­lar­real. He man­aged only 13 games, spent the next year two years on loan and was sold for £2.5 mil­lion.

Whether it is Van Dijk or some­one else, it is reach­ing the point where the ques­tion is not which cen­tre-half City should sign, but whether Be­giris­tain is the right man with which to en­trust that task? Guardi­ola wields tremen­dous power but a con­ver­sa­tion with City’s hi­er­ar­chy ear­lier in the year left no doubt that it was Be­giris­tain who shaped the trans­fer strat­egy.

City paid Ever­ton £47.5 mil­lion ris­ing to £50 mil­lion to sign John Stones in the sum­mer. It would be wrong to ab­solve Stones of all blame for some no­table short­com­ings and a trou­bling timid­ity out of pos­ses­sion, but the Eng­land de­fender has suf­fered for the fail­ure to find an ad­e­quate re­place­ment for the peren­ni­ally in­jured Vin­cent Kom­pany. It says ev­ery­thing that Guardi­ola has of­ten taken to us­ing a full-back, Alek­san­dar Ko­larov, as a makeshift cen­tre-half.

For all Guardi­ola’s stead­fast de­ter­mi­na­tion to play out from the back, City, more than any­thing, re­quire an ex­pe­ri­enced leader and or­gan­iser in de­fence, not least given that goal­keeper Clau­dio Bravo is no nearer to pro­vid­ing that than Stones or Ota­mendi. Sur­vey the ti­tle-win­ners across Europe down the years and they have all had one, some­times two. It is a pre­req­ui­site. Even Guardi­ola would recog­nise that, for all Car­les Puyol’s abil­ity on the ball and acute po­si­tional sense, Barcelona’s long-stand­ing cap­tain was, first and fore­most, a com­bat­ive de­fender and leader of men.

Van Dijk is im­pos­ing, has pace and chips in with the odd goal but, watch­ing his chaotic show­ing in Southamp­ton’s 4-1 de­feat by Spurs in mid­week, would he rep­re­sent any less of a gam­ble than a Stones or Man­gala

The ques­tion is whether Be­giris­tain is the right man to en­trust the task to Hav­ing an academy is fu­tile if there are no first­team open­ings

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