Saturday 26 May 2018

Manchester City are right to want Alexis Sanchez now even if Arsenal star is not an essential signing

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez
Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez

Mark Critchley

Sergio Aguero was already stripped and waiting on the touchline when Raheem Sterling, his replacement as Manchester City’s lone striker, zipped in front of his Bristol City marker to create a chance for himself at the near post.

Sterling still needed to react quickly to the drilled cross from right flank but he was still only few yards away the goalline, you might say at point-blank range. When Frank Fielding saved, beating the ball away, it felt like a big chance missed and the most wasteful moment on a night of many for Pep Guardiola’s side.

In the end, it did not matter. Aguero rose to head past Fielding in the second minute of added-on time and earned City a slender but valuable one-goal advantage to take to Ashton Gate when the two sides meet again two weeks from now, in the second leg of this Carabao Cup semi-final.

Victory was never supposed to be come so late though and Aguero was certainly not supposed to leave his seat as a substitute.

Guardiola confessed as much in his post-match press conference. “Sergio has had a lot of games and in this situation Gabriel [Jesus] is not fit, so we have to protect him a little bit,” he said. Aguero has more games to come too. Jesus is unlikely to play any part until at least mid-February, meaning the Argentine will be City’s only natural, recognised striker for their six games in the next 28 days.

That is, unless, they sign Alexis Sanchez.

City’s willingness to finalise a deal for the Arsenal forward now rather than in the summer has puzzled some, given that Sanchez will be available free of charge come 30 June and he has shown little sign of courting interest from elsewhere.

Why, when in such a comfortable position in the league and with only one relatively straight-forward Champions League tie to negotiate before Jesus’ return, is it necessary to pay £25m or so for another forward now? Who would he even replace in City’s first-choice starting line-up? Sanchez’s performances this season have been below-par, even if we generously judge them in the context of a want-away player in the last year of his contract watching the clock.

What these questions ignore about City’s pursuit ignore, though, is that if this seemingly-unstoppable side is missing anything, it is depth.

Granted, that is more by design than accident. At Barcelona and Bayern Munich as well as in these two years at City, Guardiola has typically preferred to work with a small group of positionally-flexible players rather than loading his dressing room with two per position.

This policy has looked like it could put a stop to City’s title procession more than anything else. There are few reliable alternatives to John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi at centre-half. The same applies to Fernandinho, playing next to every minute in a pivotal role, one that requires significant physical exertion from a 32-year-old. Fabian Delph’s makeshift appearances at full back say it all.

Yet there is a need for reinforcements at the front end too. Even when you ignore the fact that Guardiola’s squad has just two players who can comfortably play as a lone focal point, consider that City have so far managed to excel without either Aguero or Jesus enjoying a sustained period of good form.

Aguero has not scored in consecutive league games since September, while Jesus’ record of 10 goals in 27 appearances can be described as little more than ‘good’. Guardiola has heavily rotated the pair and there have been times when they have simultaneously struggled for rhythm. Thankfully, one of City’s deeper players has been on hand to pick up the slack. Usually, it has been Sterling, who was still his side’s leading scorer in all competitions until this past week.

Once Jesus returns, Guardiola could well keep rotating the pair until the season’s end and continue to rely on supplementary goals from midfield. City would still win the title at a canter, maybe even a cup competition too. Yet with each passing victory, domestic achievements become less of the point. This season, this side has an opportunity to do more than just that.

The depth that signing Sanchez would provide will also apply to European competition, as the Chilean will be eligible to play in the Champions League if he signs this January, despite his participation in Arsenal’s Europa League campaign.

After a favourable knock-out phase draw that saw tough ties for fellow contenders as well as a favourable one for City against Basel, the Etihad hierarchy have the chance to draft in an elite talent at a cut-price to help achieve a short-term objective.

The European Cup that this club craves in order to establish itself among the continent’s elite will be likelier with Sanchez in tow. Given the relatively low costs involved for a player of his talent, it makes sense to move now.

Online Editors

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