Man City finally get their man - from Fred, Jorginho & De Jong to 'new Busquets' Rodri
Updated: Jul 5, 2019
Manchester City have finally got their man.
Well, not the man they were hoping to sign 18 months ago, nor the one 12 months ago, nor the one six months ago, but in Rodri they have finally signed a deep-lying midfielder who ticks the boxes necessary to play in a Pep Guardiola team.
There have been a few of those in the past couple of years, and not just the ones City made firm attempts to buy.
Rodri has long been tipped as the heir to Sergio Busquets. Given it was Guardiola who promoted Busquets to the Barcelona first team and launched his top-level career, it is easy to imagine his successor slotting seamlessly into this City project.
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The 23-year-old has proven himself adept at the defensive side of the game, partially thanks to playing for Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid, while his short, fast passing with both feet will help City build attacks efficiently - although perhaps the range of passing has not been used to its full potential in Simeone's safety-first approach.
But it is inevitable that City have struggled to find somebody with the exact qualities that make them ready to compete with and eventually replace Fernandinho - and not just because of setbacks in the transfer market.
The Brazilian has blossomed into something of a unique midfielder, one who is as capable of playing Guardiola-beloved passes as he is of making tackles and interceptions - and, for good measure, winning headers.
In the past two years, City have watched and approached several midielders who they believed ticked some of those boxes and could be coached to tick the rest.
They tried to sign Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk in January 2018 after identifying some of the qualities they were looking for; specifically, his eye for a pass (especially long-range), his physicality and his energetic approach. In Ukraine, he tended to make more bursts forward than would have been expected at the Etihad Stadium, but that was something that City planned to change.
In the end, that didn't matter, because Manchester United came onto the scene and City started to look elsewhere. In the event, while Fred did not show an awful lot in his first season at Old Trafford, he was used in more of a reserved role, hinting at the kind of role City would have asked of him.
City quickly moved on, and while they had a close look at Lyon's Tanguy Nmdobele - still a relative unknown at the time - they made a serious bid to get Jorginho.
Much like with Rodri, they had pretty much planned for his arrival as early as April 2018. They loved how the Italian was the playmaker in Maurizio Sarri's team, which twice gave City a tough time in the Champions League during 2017-18, and believed he would take them on to the next level, particularly in the Champions League.
Jorginho is not a physical defensive midfielder like Fred or Fernandinho, but his strengths - chiefly the organisation of his team-mates and his ability to spot and execute a wide range of passes - convinced Guardiola that he would be an ideal fit. While Fernandinho is always on hand to put out fires, the idea was that Jorginho's organisation would mean fewer fires to be put out in the first place.
They also believed Jorginho would be good enough in the air to play at the back of midfield, despite his relatively short height, but that suddenly all became irrelevant - along with his verbal agreement with City, his desire to play for Guardiola and the fact Napoli even agreed to a transfer fee.
In mid-July, the Serie A side refused to sanction a move, insisting instead that he go to Chelsea as part of the compensation package that took Sarri to Stamford Bridge.
Had City met Napoli's demands in May or June, the Sarri factor would not have come into play, but they had decided on their valuation and stuck to it, opening the door for rival bids, as has happened previously.
That left City empty-handed and under-prepared. Despite red-herring links to Mateo Kovacic and Mario Lemina, they had no real Plan B in place. Ndombele was looked at again, as was Wolves' Ruben Neves, but neither were obtainable.
Enter Frenkie De Jong. The Dutchman had been on the radar of essentially every top club in Europe for a long time, but City really ramped up their efforts to sign him last autumn.
At this point, it became hard to ascertain exactly what City wanted from their Fernandinho heir. Did they want a defensive player they could teach to pass or a passer they could teach to defend? When Guardiola first arrived back in 2016 he kept an eye on Julian Weigl, but soon realised that he was not physical enough to do what Fernandinho does.
And, at the start of the season, Ilkay Gundogan did not look entirely comfortable with the dirty side of the game, either, so physicality was on the agenda when it came to new players.
And while De Jong is more of a Jorginho or a Neves than a Fred or Ndombele, the 22-year-old was deemed so good, such a generational talent, that City were willing to sign him anyway.
They imagined his willingness to receive the ball on the edge of the box, turn and either pass or dribble the ball up the pitch. They loved how, despite his stature, he always seemed to be in the right place to win the ball back.
For a while, City thought they had him. In fact, officials at Barcelona felt the advances made by Blues sporting director Txiki Begiristain in September and October last year made it extremely difficult for any other club to get a look in.
Extremely difficult, but not impossible. After De Jong started to deliberate, Barcelona eventually made a major push of their own, sending a delegation to Amsterdam with the goal of persuading De Jong to make the move to Camp Nou. As well as the lure of playing with Lionel Messi, they offered an after-tax salary, including bonuses, of over €300,000 per week, plus €5m to the agent, for his services.
That left City shocked and Guardiola annoyed. After three near misses in the space of a year, the pressure ramped up on Begiristain, who had to go back to the market yet again and find somebody who not only ticked enough boxes, but would be available for the kind of fee City wanted to spend. For all of their money, their club record fee is 'only' £60m.
When it is put like that, it seems inevitable that Rodri was the man they turned to. Begiristain was encouraged just as much by the midfielder's afforable release clause as his defensive contribution, height and improvable passing ability, and the usual approaches were made to ascertain whether he would want to join.
A long-term admirer of Guardiola's Barca, that was never going to be too much of an issue. In April, a year on from when they put Jorginho's move in place, City had everything prepared to sign Rodri. One insider had said it was "very, very done".
Alarm bells rang last month, then, when the player said he needed some time to think about his future. Suddenly, more red-herring City targets appeared, this time with the goal of hurrying Rodri into making the right decision. They were Ndombele and Marcos Llorente - handily, a former target and the man that Atleti themselves had lined up to replace Rodri.
In truth, City would have been back to square one again, and they not only had to worry about Ateti's attempts to sign Rodri to a new contract but Bayern Munich's concrete interest; their sporting director, Hasan Salihamidzic, met the player's agent in Madrid in May.
In the end, Rodri stuck to his original decision, perhaps aided by a phonecall from Guardiola at the start of June. In the following days, he informed Simeone that he had decided to leave, and that he would join City.
With the release clause set in stone - just like Aymeric Laporte's in 2018 - City could relax, to an extent. They allowed Rodri to enjoy his holiday, despite allowing Dani Alves to do so when he went back on his agreement and moved to Paris Saint-Germain, and triggered the clause when he returned.
He may not be the kind of superstar signing that would help Puma, City's new sponsors, flog a million extra shirts across the globe, but he may just be one of the most important signings in this Guardiola era.
City have done some of the hard work by bringing him to the club in the first place; now they have to ensure he ticks all the boxes.
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