PEP GUARDIOLA does things differently. Never was this clearer than during his first season in the Premier League as Manchester City boss.
His goalkeeper was (marginally) better with his feet than with his hands, his centre-backs were full-backs and his central midfielders were actually attacking midfielders.
However, for all his tactical innovation, Guardiola struggled to deal with the nature of the Premier League and its direct style of play in his debut campaign.
This is something he openly admitted in an interview with Sky Sports, saying: “Many times the ball is more in the air than the grass, and I have to adapt…
“Really, you have to adapt to the second ball, and the third ball, and the fourth!”
The relentless physicality and directness of the English top flight is something Guardiola has yet to fully adjust to, though there were promising signs towards the end of last season.
His City side began to play fast, counter-attacking football and pressed their opponents high up the pitch. They started to look more and more like a conventional Premier League team.
One of the traditions Guardiola has yet to accept, however, is the need for a holding midfielder.
Once welcomed back into the fold, Yaya Toure – formerly a powerful, box-to-box playmaker type – was generally used in front of the defence.
Ilkay Gundogan, once fully fit, will probably be utilised in or around the same berth.
However, our friends at Football Whispers argue that signing a more natural holding midfielder is a necessity if City are to win the Premier League next season.
Why City need a holding midfielder
Guardiola’s style of play is legendary, and – prior to his moving to the Premier League – it has required a specialised, deep-lying midfielder almost always.
During his first managerial tenure, with Barcelona, he promoted Sergio Busquets to the first team and effectively built the team around him, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Busquets remains a key player within the Catalan giants’ three-man midfield to this day.
Then, when Guardiola joined Bayern Munich after a year out of football management, one of his key signings was that of Xabi Alonso. The Spaniard arrived from Real Madrid in 2014 and his incisive passes became integral to the team’s play.
The decisions to build his teams around the likes of Busquets and Alonso came as no surprise – Guardiola himself was a holding midfielder IN his own playing days. And, rather than relying on pure strength and tackling, he too was a canny, technical operator.
And yet a similar transfer has yet to transpire since the renowned coach was appointed City boss.
The closest thing to an out-and-out deep-lying midfielder he has available is Fernandinho.
However, the Brazilian was used in a variety of other positions – slightly higher up the pitch, as well as at either full-back position.
If City sign enough full-backs then it would free up Fernandinho to play in his favoured position.
And between him and Toure they may have enough cover in that part of the pitch. But signing a specialist, world-class holding midfielder would enhance City’s game in many ways.
Firstly, it would help the centre-backs when building possession from the back. Secondly, it would improve the quality of passes through to the front line. Thirdly, it would give protection to the more attack-minded players in the team.
A quick look at City’s domestic and European rivals only further highlights the importance of this type of player.
Barcelona have Busquets, Real Madrid have Casemiro, and Bayern Munich have Arturo Vidal, while city rivals Manchester United play a lot better when Michael Carrick is backing up Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera.
City’s options this summer
While City made a fast start to the summer transfer window, bringing in Bernardo Silva, Ederson and Kyle Walker, there remain a few key areas in need of strengthening.
Defensive midfield is one such area.
Fortunately, if they do look to add a natural in this position, there are a number of potential options they could consider.
Perhaps the standout is Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Weigl.
At just 21 years of age, the German has played two full seasons for his club, making 60 Bundesliga appearances. Within that time, he has shown an innate awareness and superb passing ability that mark him out as perhaps the best young deep-lying playmaker in the game.
Weigl is also an established international with five caps at senior level for his country, a remarkable feat considering not just his relative inexperience but the calibre of competition for places.
Another option for Guardiola to look at would be Steven N’Zonzi.
A notably more experienced professional, the Frenchman starred for Sevilla last season to earn attention from some of Europe’s biggest and best teams, including Manchester City.
Not only is the 28-year-old a powerful presence and a sound technician, but he has Premier League experience having played for both Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers.
If a more affordable option is the priority, Brazil-born Italy international Jorginho would be worth consideration from Guardiola.
The 25-year-old plays for Napoli, a team whose focus on quick, penetrative passing and constant attacking is a similar, more effective version of the style of play on show at the Etihad Stadium.
Jorginho’s composure when under pressure and ultra-accurate ball-playing would make him an ideal candidate for the holding role in a Guardiola midfield.
And, with his place in the Napoli line-up under threat from Amadou Diawara, the player could be available for a more accessible fee than Weigl or N’Zonzi.
Manchester City are looking more like a Guardiola team with every passing transfer window, but they are still one holding midfielder away from a serious Premier League title challenge.
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