TFN Editor Hugo Greenhalgh believes Manchester City’s squad needs freshening up…
Somewhat unusually, The Sunday Times ran a front page on the day of the Manchester Derby claiming that City were to fight Liverpool for the signature of Steven Gerrard’s next contract. While there may be little truth to this rumour, it would fit in with City’s recent trend of signing experienced players well beyond their peak years. The main reason for this policy is Financial Fair Play; they are a club continually at odds with the homegrown rule that requires a minimum of five “homegrown” players in their Champions League squad, while any free transfers are a bonus.
It will come as little surprise that Manchester City possess the oldest average squad age in the Premier League at 28. This is not necessarily a bad thing. They are, after all, the champions and that age brings experience. Key players such as Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, Pablo Zabeleta and Fernandinho are all 28 or over. The concern is that time and time again, City have failed to integrate younger players into their squad. Indeed, there are very few who appear to be challenging for places.
This summer Bacary Sagna was signed on a free from Arsenal and Frank Lampard joined on loan from New York City after he left Chelsea. While both can provide capable cover, as proven with Lampard’s equaliser against his former club, neither are long-term replacements for City. The one ‘prospect’ brought in was Eliaquim Mangala for whom the jury is still out. Meanwhile, Martin Demichelis, an older defender brought in last summer as something of a short-term stop-gap after younger and more prestigious transfer targets slipped by continues to play as a mainstay of the backline.
Mangala has shown some of the makings of a quality centre-back but City’s recent history of assimilating young players is not particularly strong. However, this hasn’t been for lack of trying. City have signed plenty of young players since the Mansour takeover, but very few have been able to establish themselves. One only has to look at Mario Balotelli, Stefan Savic, Matija Nastasić, Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell to see how difficult it is to remain part of the City fabric. Rather, the club has preferred to sign recognised world-beaters or take punts on ageing players.
Looking at City’s depth, there are very few younger players who appear ready or capable of taking over from this generation. Dedryck Boyata is the sole survivor from the 2008 FA Youth Cup-winning side but has only featured in the League Cup this season. Over the years, promising talents have lost their way – Michael Johnson, Steven Ireland and to a certain extent Micah Richards – or gone on to prosper elsewhere – Daniel Sturridge.
Success can of course be achieved with older sides, but it is usually best complimented with a splash of youth. For instance, Arsenal’s Invincibles side had an average age of 27.6. There was a backbone of experience but the importance of youthful contributions cannot be overstated. Ashley Cole and Kolo Toure were both in their early 20s and played the majority of games, while January signing Jose Antonio Reyes chipped in with a couple of crucial goals in their run-in.
Ageing sides have also had success in Europe. AC Milan’s 2007 Champions League-winning team was the oldest starting eleven ever in a Final, with an average age of 31. Their back four were all over 30 and featured a 38-year-old Paolo Maldini. Yet it was Kaka, the tournament’s top scorer, who brought the side to life and was their pivotal figure in reaching the final.
This season City have been touted as the only side capable of catching the runaway league leaders Chelsea. This is a group of players who know what it takes to win a league title. However, given the manner in which City laboured to a 1-0 victory against 10-man Manchester United, it could do with some freshening up sooner or later. Perhaps some youthful reinforcements will be top of Manuel Pellegrini’s January wishlist.