COMMENT: This summer may see Manchester City place one foot on the Pep Guardiola tightrope.
The Spaniard has acted flippantly, in public at least, towards the club's quiet summer, stating over the weekend that "if we sign a player, we will sign only one more… maybe one comes, maybe not." But don't be fooled by this positive facade. There is a reason Guardiola hasn't managed a club any longer than four years. And City risk alienating their new messiah if they don't fulfil his wishes.
In 2012, he left Barcelona, exhausted after four seasons and 14 trophies, because he was unable to get any more out of his players. A new challenge was needed. While friction with controversial president at the time, Sandro Rosell, only reinforced his reasons for leaving his boyhood club.
At Bayern Munich, Guardiola became bored. After a third and final Champions League, it was again time for a new challenge. Similar resistance to his demands for complete control were aroused in Bavaria, particularly with Bayern's club doctor of 38 years, Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, who eventually resigned because of his fractitious relationship with Guardiola.
And now, even after City won the league by 19 points last season, Guardiola is restless. This is who he is. A man obsessed with perfection and success. And that is why it was no surprise when respected sources were reporting last week that the Spaniard was 'unimpressed' with the club's inability to sign the one player he covets more than any other.
The holding midfielder is integral to how a Guardiola team plays. The gateway from defence to attack, from attack to defence. He is required to perform all the tasks asked of a midfielder, while simultaneously being the tactical focal point, able to dictate the pace and rhythm required in order to inflict maximum dominance of the ball. That is why he is known as 'the Conductor', the man at the heart of Guardiola's elegant brand of football.
Guardiola knows the position better than anyone alive. He served as the guinea pig when the late Johan Cruyff introduced the role into his Barcelona 'Dream Team' of the 90's. And one just has to look at the players he has used as a manager to know how highly Guardiola regards the position. Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andreas Iniesta, Phillip Lahm and Thiago Alcantara all played as a number six at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Yet, Pep says he is content with his current lot…
"In the holding midfield position we don't have less players because Fernandinho is still there one more year, [Ilkay] Gundogan can play there, Fabian Delph can play there. Oleksander Zinchenko, if he stays, can play there, we have players can play that position."
Fernandinho, likely to start in City's season opener against Arsenal, was impressive in the role last season. But he isn't a specialist holding midfielder, and at the age of 33, reliability becomes an issue and the chances of further development are slim.
Gundogan is, naturally, a box-to-box midfielder and the defensive side of the game is not his strong suit. Ditto for Fabian Delph. And Zinchenko? He was an attacking midfielder/winger before Guardiola used him primarily as a replacement left-back last season.
Pep's not lying entirely. These four are capable of playing the position. But can they elevate City to dominate England and compete amongst the European elite?
Because that's the ultimate goal. Guardiola didn't recommit to City for another two years for his side to just compete for Premier League titles. This is the man who managed Barcelona and Bayern Munich to multiple domestic and European crowns. He wants to do the same in the world's toughest competition. Year after year.
Just repeating last season's title success will be difficult enough. Manchester United were the last to go back-to-back over ten years ago. And with the billions of TV money poured in, complacency can be suicidal. Valladolid or Augsburg may not fork out £20m for a player, but the likes of Bournemouth or Brighton certainly will.
It is no coincidence that City's rivals have spent their riches on a certain type of player this summer. Liverpool, whose ferocious counter-attack proved to be the antithesis of Guardiola's ball-dominant outfit last season, have spent £97m on Fabinho and Naby Keita, both of whom are midfielders. Manchester United, despite Jose Mourinho's grumpiness, have spent £50m on Fred to join Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matic. Chelsea brought in Napoli's Jorginho, right under the noses of City, for £57million. (which included compensation for Maurizio Sarri).
City have at least tried to be one step ahead while their rivals attempt to neutralise their dominant midfield. First it was Fred, who City almost signed in January, before Jorginho became the number one priority. A deal for the Italy international was all but signed until his Sarri-induced backflip. It wasn't supposed to be like this for Guardiola. These sort of problems had been fixed easily in the past. Fullbacks were the issue last summer, to which City responded by spending £150m on Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy.
Those bottomless Emirati coffers haven't worked this time around. And while City remain favourites to win the Premier League this season, history tells us that Guardiola doesn't stick around when things go against him. He's a fierce competitor, and more importantly, a perfectionist. And if the failure to sign a holding midfielder comes back to haunt City later on in the season, a small crack may appear in Guardiola's plans for a prosperous Sky Blue dynasty.