Friday 20 April 2018

Begiristain's failure weakens Guardiola ahead of City revolution

New manager on back foot thanks to the mistakes of former colleague

Pep Guardiola (PA)
Pep Guardiola (PA)

James Ducker

It is one of the ironies of the perverse situation in which Manchester City find themselves that, after almost four years of diligent work to acquire the manager they believe will propel the club to new heights, Pep Guardiola’s bid to create a dynasty at the Etihad Stadium may end up starting from a position of relative weakness.

When City spent more than £140million on new players last summer, there were expectations of a third Premier League title in five seasons and a rich inheritance to bequeath Guardiola, whose services they were increasingly confident of securing.

At no point could they have envisaged that, nine months on, they would be in a battle to qualify for next season’s Champions League and facing the ignominious prospect of asking the continent’s most revered coach to prepare for life in the Europa League.

Yet that unwelcome scenario could move a step closer to reality if results take another downward turn over the next fortnight, by which point City could have been eliminated from the Champions League by Paris Saint-Germain and given West Ham United and Manchester United more encouragement in the chase for a top-four finish. Bournemouth away tomorrow is a huge game.

The natural inclination is to point a finger in the direction of the man Guardiola is replacing. Manuel Pellegrini has been floundering for some time – as far back as January last year when the wheels fell off City’s title challenge, in truth – and has looked even more flummoxed since news of Guardiola’s impending arrival was made public on February 1.

In the past two seasons, City have punched well below their weight, tactical mistakes have been repeated and the team are becoming less capable of producing those scintillating performances that often dispersed the storm clouds generated by a series of underwhelming displays. Their creative edge has been blunted, goals are hard to come by and the defence is a bigger problem than ever.

But to focus solely on Pellegrini would be harsh and misguided. The Chilean has been left to work with a squad still far too dependent on an ageing and increasingly injury-prone nucleus assembled during the Mark Hughes and Roberto Mancini eras because the club’s subsequent transfer dealings have, to a large extent, fallen horribly short of expectations.

Txiki Begiristain was brought in as director of football in October 2012 with the ultimate target of delivering Guardiola, with whom he worked closely at Barcelona and has a personal friendship.

Having achieved that goal, Begiristain has bolstered his standing among the club’s hierarchy at a time when, judged solely on his dealings in the transfer market, the Spaniard should be under acute pressure.

If a manager had a record on the pitch as underwhelming as Begiristain has in player acquisition, he would have been jettisoned a long time ago, but the special circumstances of his relationship with Guardiola have proved a trump card.

Of the 14 senior players Begiristain has signed at City, only two could be considered unqualified successes – midfielders Fernandinho and Kevin De Bruyne; a dismal return. Raheem Sterling could, in time, prove money well spent but the flops have been plentiful. The arduous physical and mental burdens that have, in turn, been placed on Yaya Toure, David Silva, Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero, Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart have taken a heavy toll.

The core of the team is crumbling and requires careful surgery, with Paul Pogba, Toni Kroos, Ilkay Gundogan and John Stones in City’s sights.

Can Begiristain be trusted finally to get it right in his eighth transfer window in Manchester? City’s most senior executives were still unequivocal in the hours leading up to the club’s derby defeat by United 11 days ago that he had the final say on who comes and goes.

Anyone who followed Begiristain’s record as sporting director for seven years at Barcelona may be unsurprised by the number of failed purchases.

Of course, Begiristain presided over several big successes – Ronaldinho, Rafael Marquez, Deco, Samuel Eto’o, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves and Toure among them. But there was a glut of costly failures, particularly from a defensive perspective, Begiristain’s apparent weak spot. Dmytro Chygrynskiy made just 14 appearances for Barcelona after the Ukraine centre-back’s £22m move from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2009 before being sold at a £9m loss 12 months later.

Another defender, Martin Caceres, a £15m signing from Villarreal, played just 13 league games, spent the next two years on loan and was offloaded for just £2.5m. Henrique, Edmilson and Gabriel Milito were other failed defensive acquisitions.

That will feel wearily familiar to City supporters. Eliaquim Mangala, the world’s most costly defender when he signed from Porto for £42m in August 2014, is probably Begiristain’s worst error of judgement – and looks worse still in the context of the later move to spend £32m on Nicolas Otamendi from Valencia last summer.

A total of £74m on two central defenders and yet signing at least one more will still be a priority this summer. And that is before the full-back problems are accounted for which lead to a situation against Manchester United a fortnight ago where they started with Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy, two players who were with Arsenal five years ago.

Pedigree players have been contacting City to express a desire to play for Guardiola but even the “Pep effect” might lose a little of its lustre if the club are not in the Champions League.

Averting that scenario will be focusing much of the club’s attention, but Begiristain must finally succeed in injecting some sparkle into a squad anchored for too long by players who pre-date his arrival. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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