For the first time since summer 2012, Manchester City are going to have to spend money on their full-backs. With the confirmed departures of Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy, there’s only Aleksandar Kolarov remaining who can fill the wide defensive berth — and even he’s since been converted into a centre-back.
There’s been no secret of City’s interest in the likes of Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, with both defenders expected to join the club sooner rather than later, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more targets emerge in those positions.
The 22-year-old Monaco full-back would be the latest in a string of young, exciting additions to the team. Even at 27, Walker would also bring the average age of the squad down as all of those the club released in his position were on the wrong side of 30.
An aged squad is a problem City have sleepwalked into, especially in defence. Year after year, City failed to strengthen — though it has seemed like there’s been other areas with more pressing issues than full-back over the past few seasons. It left Manuel Pellegrini and Pep Guardiola mainly working with what was already there.
The Chilean brought in Bacary Sagna on a free transfer from Arsenal in 2014, but it’s telling that there’s been no investment in the position since Roberto Mancini took a chance on Maicon in 2012, spending €3 million on the Brazilian. Given how much of a flop the defender was, it could be argued that City haven’t truly looked at their full-backs since Clichy joined from the Gunners in 2011 — six years ago.
It left Guardiola with a problem. The side hadn’t been set up well to cope with how he demands his teams to play — the Catalan decided to replace Joe Hart with a more ball-playing goalkeeper, while his central defenders struggled to cope under pressure without Vincent Kompany alongside them.
For so long throughout 2016-17, City would dominate the ball against most teams, but still concede despite keeping the opposition down to one or two chances. It didn’t help that Claudio Bravo struggled to settle in the Premier League — and the goalkeeping situation might change radically with the signing of Ederson — though Guardiola might not pin as much blame on the Chilean as the fans have done.
When asked by journalists about his side’s poor defensive displays, the manager consistently told them that it wouldn’t have been a problem if his attacking players had finished off some of the many chances they had squandered. It was true, profligacy in front of goal had been a problem, but it seemed like deflection from the boss, aimed at diverting attention from what looked like a very obvious problem.
But even on the touchline, Guardiola seemed critical of his side’s attacking, rather than exasperation with his defence. His full-backs were a particular source of frustration, as he repeatedly tried — and failed — to get them into better positions to receive the ball and set his team up for an attack.
Fans were agog to see Sagna and Clichy operating in defensive midfield roles whenever City were in possession during the 2-1 win against Sunderland on the opening day of the season. It seemed clear that was close to Guardiola’s ideal, but the scheme was scrapped later in the campaign for leaving too many holes.
By the spring, Fernandinho and Jesus Navas had been trialled at right back, even when both Zabaleta and Sagna were available, just to try to get more of the midfield nous into the position, especially when receiving the ball from the goalkeeper.
Despite their defensive frailties last season, it still feels like targeting Walker and Mendy is another answer to the club’s goalscoring problems.
Undoubtedly both would be an improvement on their predecessors in stopping opposition attacks, but equally both have been commended for their ability in possession, their awareness for which runs to make and their movement off the ball.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if that’s the biggest attribute that makes them appealing for a Guardiola squad, and if they can help block a few crosses and keep the ball out of their own net a few times then all the better.
The manager doesn’t view football in as much black and white as many fans — there’s no attacking and defensive game, but rather an entire team set up to keep the opposition from scoring and to score goals themselves. For Guardiola, the objective is simple: get the ball back and create a good opportunity to score.
When the manager talks of his attack missing chances, he’s not criticising only his forward players. When he says his team is fragile to opposition counters, he’s not taking aim at solely his defenders. He views both as a failing of everyone on the pitch.
In many ways, the full-backs will make or break the team next season. They could be the difference between what happened in 2016-17 and City looking comfortable in possession under pressure and them being another facet in the club’s arsenal of attacking options.
David Mooney is ESPN FC’s Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney