Pep Guardiola has proven to be very adept at shuffling legends aside, with Sergio Aguero the latest Manchester City idol to feel a hand on his back, ushering him towards the door amid a shower of gratitude and platitudes.
But for City, the difficulty has been found in replacing such icons. When Aguero disappears into the sunset, perhaps in the direction of Paris or Barcelona, they simply cannot afford to repeat previous mistakes.
Every summer since Guardiola’s arrival, the City boss has removed one of the heroes of the club’s first Premier League triumph, five players who will never again have to buy a drink in Manchester’s blue boozers.
Guardiola didn’t have time to indulge Joe Hart. The keeper was ruthlessly shoved aside in 2016, but since then, Pablo Zabaleta, Yaya Toure, Vincent Kompany and David Silva have all been sent on their way with no doubt of the esteem in which they are held. ‘Thanks for everything, would you prefer a statue or a training pitch?’
But despite the forethought that has gone into these farewells, succession planning has been rather more fraught.
Guardiola eventually replaced Hart with Ederson but only after a year of Claudio Bravo’s ghost in City’s sticks. Zabaleta’s departure prompted one of Guardiola’s £50million splurges on a full-back – in this case on Kyle Walker – and though the England defender has had some rocky moments, City’s right-back area has rarely been a problem since.
Guardiola was never too concerned about replacing Toure. At times, the manager appeared happy simply to be rid of the midfielder, and his duties were shared across City’s midfield by Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan.
City were fortunate to have a homegrown replacement for David Silva in Phil Foden, who has seized his belated breakthrough this season. Pep knew…
But the cautionary tale comes from City’s failure to adequately or promptly replace Kompany in the heart of their defence.
The captain departed in 2019 to take over at Anderlecht, leaving a gaping void in Guardiola’s rearguard. Kompany had just played a major role in helping City stave off the threat of Liverpool in the Premier League title race while also lifting the other two domestic cups. He partnered Aymeric Laporte, while John Stones was exiled, with Guardiola’s reserves of patience with the England defender apparently exhausted.
There were replacements available. Guardiola was linked with Harry Maguire and Kalidou Koulibaly and either would have filled the Kompany-shaped hole. But City, richer than God, refused to pay the going rate. Maguire went to Manchester United, where he sparked an immediate improvement, while Koulibaly remained at Napoli.
“He’s an excellent, top-class player,” Guardiola said when Maguire moved in with the neighbours. “We were interested but could not afford it. United could afford it… Congratulations to United.”
City frugality and Laporte’s injury left Guardiola desperately short and City a long way behind Liverpool, who had filled their own defensive hole with £75m Virgil van Dijk.
If you told me when Aguero signed a decade ago that he’d go on to be the club’s greatest ever striker but we let him go on a free and replaced him with Alfe Haaland’s son, then I would have assumed Peter Swales was back in charge
— Will Unwin (@Will_Unwin) March 29, 2021
The difference Van Dijk or Maguire would have made to City is clear and their refusal to shop in the luxury aisle was an act of self-sabotage. A year too late, they addressed the problem by buying two centre-backs, Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake, for a combined £100million, but never could they countenance spending such a sum on one player.
City will have to reverse that policy if they are to adequately compensate for the loss of their greatest ever goalscorer this summer. The club broke their transfer record to land Aguero in 2011 as they went in search of their most coveted prize – the Premier League title – the following season. To do the same next term and rule Europe – if they don’t succeed in the meantime – they will have to adopt a similar policy with his replacement.
It is by no means certain that they will. City have rigorously followed the guidelines imposed upon themselves, and though their pursuit of Lionel Messi is at odds with their similarly-rigid wage structure, an exception to the rule would be granted if it helped them land the very biggest fish. Otherwise, as Raheem Sterling is discovering in his talks over a new deal, the rules could be bent but not broken.
But for Erling Haaland, City should implement new rules. It would hardly be the first re-write. And paying £100million for the game’s next biggest thing is hardly an act of gratuitousness; this is not PSG signing Neymar just because they could.
City need a centre-forward and any team with genuine ambitions of ruling Europe while possessing the means to do so should pay whatever it takes to pacify Borussia Dortmund and Mino Raiola.
Haaland would be a cheat code for City, with the bonus that signing him would deprive domestic and European rivals also in the market for a centre-forward.
And what would Guardiola’s alternative be? Maintaining their current transfer policy while breaking their record incrementally would give the City boss around £70million to spend on a centre-forward, which would not be enough to buy a striker in the bracket below Haaland and Robert Lewandowski.
Romelu Lukaku may be an alternative but he would not come any cheaper. Nor would you get the same longevity from the 27-year-old Belgian that 20-year-old Haaland offers.
Guardiola could muddle on with Gabriel Jesus and a rage of false nine options. But why should he? With one of the world’s best goalscorers available to replace their greatest ever, this is an opportunity City cannot afford to miss.