Man City right to revisit Aymeric Laporte deal to boost defensive strength
After what had seemed a done deal to bring Alexis Sanchez to Manchester City, supporters could have been forgiven for feeling like this January transfer window was bit of a disappointment before Pep Guardiola broke the club's transfer record to make Athletic Bilbao centre-back Aymeric Laporte the latest addition to his squad for £57 million.
It's a move that some may find surprising, after Laporte turned down the chance to join in 2016, but it's a transfer that made perfect sense for City to revisit. The France Under-21 international was just 21 when he said no to Guardiola; further development, some extra maturity, and a change of circumstances in Spain now mean the 23-year old fits the bill once again.
The addition comes at a time when the club has been shown to be somewhat light in the centre-back department, following injuries to John Stones and Vincent Kompany this season. The back four has, on the whole, looked far more solid -- indeed, Laporte isn't needed to add stability, but rather he's a quality player that will bolster the numbers, giving the manager more options for the second half of the campaign.
Throughout his first season with City, Guardiola was plagued with defensive issues. On an almost weekly basis, supporters would turn up at matches and watch players lose concentration and gift a shooting opportunity or goal to the opposition. It was why they were so far off the pace in the league table come May.
The knives were out for the manager, with many seemingly taking great delight in telling Guardiola that his idea of how to play football might work in Spain or Germany, but that fancy "pass-it-from-the-back" malarkey wouldn't work in England. Stones being caught in possession; Nicolas Otamendi looking awkward on the ball, or goalkeeper Claudio Bravo looking like a rabbit in the headlights was all the evidence they needed.
City's failure to land Laporte at the beginning of that season looked like it had a huge impact, as left-back Aleksandar Kolarov often had to step into the middle to cover when players were injured or suspended.
Roll forward a year and Guardiola is enjoying the last laugh. The foundations he put in place when he arrived, forcing his players to continue to accept opposition pressure deep in their own half to create openings further up the pitch, have been the bedrock of his team's success this season.
Bringing in a goalkeeper, Ederson, who is so laid back in possession he spreads calm throughout the rest of the defence and cutting out the individual errors has seen City pass their way to the second-best defensive record in the top flight. And it would have been much better had they not had a 10-minute meltdown at Anfield in the 4-3 defeat on Jan. 14.
All that has derailed the defence this season is injuries. Kompany, someone City have had to learn not to rely on throughout his nightmare few years, and Stones have spent long periods out of the team stricken, while left-back Benjamin Mendy has been unavailable since September after rupturing his cruciate ligaments.
Guardiola isn't one to rest on his laurels anyway, but that the nervy Eliaquim Mangala has had more game time than the manager would have intended and that Danilo, Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko have all had to deputise out of position at left-back, is likely to be what has forced the club to sign Laporte.
The Frenchman is more than comfortable enough in possession to fit in with Guardiola's demands and he's raw enough in his ability to still have something to learn. Fans shouldn't be expecting the finished article -- much like Stones' development in the last 18 months, there may be some rocky moments but Laporte will come out of it a better player.
It also opens up the possibility of Guardiola picking three first-choice centre-backs in a change of formation, when fitness allows. Failing that, he should have more options to ease the pressure on Stones, who occasionally needs time out of the limelight following a couple of mistakes, and the injury-ravaged Kompany.
There's been the worry all season that the defence has been one absentee away from collapse. It's been on a shoestring for some time, held together with sticky tape and players moulded into makeshift solutions until somebody else became available.
January signings are not the norm for City these days, but the club clearly felt signing Laporte was an opportunity not to be missed. It will give the defender half a season to settle in his new team before his preseason training and it gives City their much-needed back-up for the remaining three-and-a-half months as they fight for trophies on four fronts.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney