The cost again
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