After taking over at Manchester City and getting his inaugural summer’s transfer business off to a start with the signings of Celta Vigo’s Nolito and Borussia Dortmund’s Ilkay Gundogan, as well as FC Ufa’s teenage attacking midfielder Oleksandr Zinchenko, Pep Guardiola’s focus will now surely move to his defence.
The 41 goals City shipped last season, joint-highest in the top 6, nearly saw them miss out on a Champions League spot and if Guardiola is to have designs on restoring his new team back to title challengers he will have to bolster a back-line that appeared shaky last season despite achieving 16 clean sheets, the second-highest in the league.
Although Marc Andre Ter-Stegen is expected to join from Barcelona this month, Guardiola has insisted Joe Hart will remain as his number 1 following his nightmarish time with England at Euro 2016, but the defensive spots are not so certain.
Panicky and erratic defensive starters
It will be intriguing to find out just how far Guardiola’s patience extends with somebody as panicky and hesitant on the ball as Eliaquim Mangala.
Captain Vincent Kompany also starts off in a vulnerable position having missed 158 days of last season through injury while he still remains side-lined from the groin strain that saw him miss this summer’s European Championship.
£28.5 million was spent to land Nicolas Otamendi from Valencia last summer and is likely to be kept on, though he will have to eradicate his erraticism if he is to survive under a coach as scrupulous as Guardiola.
Martin Demichelis has unsurprisingly been released, making way for the highly-rated, versatile Jason Denayer who spent last season on loan with Galatasaray.
Pablo Zabaleta has been linked with a move to Roma so Denayer could be moved to right-back as Guardiola seeks to ease the workload on the aging Bacary Sagna.
That leaves a space for a fourth centre-half and with early target Aymeric Laporte signing a new deal at Athletic Bilbao, it seems possible that the Catalan could press ahead with a bid to lure John Stones away from Everton.
Proven and experienced
At 22 years of age and in desperate need of defensive coaching after his tour de force in casually reckless centre-half play under Roberto Martinez, Guardiola may be excited at the prospect of honing a player of Stones’s potential, though in another target, Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci, he will have a player already fully-equipped.
An experienced centre-back, well-versed in the art of defending as one of Juve’s Serie A-dominating dogs of war and of course, most crucially for Guardiola, skilled and able in possession.
“One of my favourite ever players” was how Guardiola described Bonucci after his Bayern Munich team had drawn 2-2 in Turin in the Champions League in March.
Only six players completed more passes than Bonucci in the whole of Serie A last season and with a pass percentage of 87%, only two members of Juventus’ squad have a better return out of the players who made 20 or more appearances.
The 29 year old failed to start just three games as Juve won the Scudetto for the fifth time in a row and made more blocks and more clearances than anybody else in the Juventus squad.
Bonucci, usually at home at the heart of the back three he plays in with Juventus and Italy, can shift seamlessly into different systems and his reading and understanding of the game will be desirable traits to Guardiola.
He went with the Azzurri to Euro 2016 as part of Antonio Conte’s defensive trio and was a main component behind their run to the quarter-finals, memorably providing Emanuele Giaccherini with the opening goal against Belgium with an inch-perfect cross-field raking ball and being a part of a parsimonious defensive trio that conceded just two goals in five rounds before their eventual penalty shoot-out exit to Germany.
Bonucci missed his kick in the shootout but fearlessly struck the penalty that draw Italy level in normal time and it is the characteristics of composure, passion, intelligence, determination and the warrior-like qualities he possesses that Guardiola would be getting if he decides to return from the knockback of a £38 million rejection with a fresh £51 million approach.
The wealth of experience he has, from 5 Serie A titles, 2 Coppa Italia medals and a Champions League final appearance with Juventus to 62 caps and an appearance in the Euro 2012 final with Italy, together with his faultless consistency make him an upgrade on any of the centre-halves Guardiola currently has under his disposal at City.
It would certainly make him a more attractive proposition than Stones- who would arrive as a diamond desperately in need of smoothing out- saving the Catalan time he has already admitted he doesn’t really have.
A tough ask to acquire
Though luring Bonucci away from Turin, where he has been at the heart of the defence since 2010 and has grown into an integral part of Juventus’ recent success, will be a tough ask, even if the Old Lady are refusing to increase the £3.2 million per year he earns in Italy.
City are reportedly prepared to double the 29 year old’s salary, but Bonucci may view the affection he has for his current club and its supporters as more of a pull factor than any money on offer in Manchester.
In contrast, Stones has allegedly told Everton he wants the move to Eastlands, facilitating any business Guardiola is willing to do.
It looks increasingly like Stones will be the man Guardiola buys to fill a defensive hole Jerome Boateng, Stefan Savic, Matija Nastasic and Demichelis have all tried, but failed, to sufficiently fill at Manchester City since 2010.
Under contract at Goodison Park until 2019 and now backed with the big money of Iranian billionaire Farhad Moshiri, they will demand a fee in the region of £40-£50 million, given that £42 million was the going rate for Mangala.
For that price, Guardiola will be getting a promising defender and an able ball-player who, at the age of 22, has many years of improvement ahead.
A finished article or an unfinished model?
Stones would be the model that sits in the showroom with years to go until it is ready to go at full performance, Bonucci however would be the finished article primed to be driven straight away.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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