Pep Guardiola has scaled back his plans for the club recently and signing a new defender in January is crucial if he is to finally build on the form of August and September
Pep Guardiola is keen to bring a new defender to Manchester City this January as he aims to conquer the English game on his own terms - with possession football.
Unfortunately for him, Schalke moved quickest and signed Holger Badstuber, a City target, on a six-month loan deal from Bayern Munich.
Guardiola has overseen an improvement in his defence since the humbling at Leicester City, but far from settling for that he remains focused on getting his City side playing good enough football to tame the unruly nature of the Premier League.
Although he is pleased to have seen his side concede just three goals in their last six games, the Catalan wants to strengthen his defence this month and press ahead with the game plan he was brought to the Etihad Stadium to implement.
Badstuber, who has been beset by constant injury problems in recent seasons and is out of contract at Bayern Munich in the summer, was identified as a cheap, relatively simple solution to City’s short-term needs.
Bayern, however, were keen for their man to stay in the Bundesliga and get regular game time, and Schalke took advantage.
It is believed in Germany that Badstuber would not have got adequate playing opportunities if he were to join City, which ignores the fact Guardiola does not regard any of his current options as undroppable.
The Blues boss has kept John Stones out of the line-up in recent weeks, is not wholly convinced by Nicolas Otamendi, while Vincent Kompany's injury problems are well documented and Aleksandar Kolarov could have returned to return to full-back had Badstuber come in.
It has been reported that City could go back in for Athletic defender Aymeric Laporte at the end of the season, but Guardiola has identified the need for reinforcements this month.
Badstuber fit the bill but the Blues will now look elsewhere.
The arrival of a new defender, whether a centre-back or a left-back, would not just provide extra cover, but allow Guardiola to do things his own way for the rest of his first season in the Premier League.
As I've been calling it recently: a step forward, but not necessarily in the right direction https://t.co/UWuDqzTEnX— Sam Lee (@Sammy_Goal) December 26, 2016
The Catalan decided to shift to a more traditional back four in the wake of the heavy defeat at Leicester a month ago after experimenting with a fluid defensive system which would change between a three-, four- or five-man back-line, depending on the opposition and the circumstances of any given match.
Those plans were abandoned after consecutive heavy defeats to Chelsea and Leicester, and City have conceded just three times in six games since the move to a stable back four.
But while that change has undeniably brought about defensive improvements, it is doubtful Guardiola will stick with the comparatively basic system for the rest of his time in Manchester.
He has merely realised that his current options cannot play the complex game he wanted to implement, and once he gets his own players he will return to the original blueprint.
City lost to Spurs in early October but things really started to get difficult after the international break that month, when Guardiola tried to evolve the team that had won their first 10 games by playing more complex systems.
He wants to get back to that as soon as possible, which is why he is not so keen to dwell on City’s defensive record in recent weeks.
"Hopefully, yeah,” he said on Thursday when asked if his side are now defending better. “Sometimes, when you make these kind of statements, when you say now we are better, better better, you arrive the next day and you concede four goals.
“From my point of view, I think we concede a lot of goals, but we conceded few, few chances. I'm happy for that, but we have to work more on our games, so what I would like to see from my team in the future is - because still the ball is up and down, up and down - to try to put it on the floor and play more. So the only way you have success this year is to play more with the ball. We know it's not easy here, but we have to insist that is the only way. But we are happy we concede few goals, yes, of course.”
Guardiola was speaking ahead of City’s FA Cup game at West Ham but returned to the subject after City ran out 5-0 winners at the London Stadium.
“The last one and a half, two months we were not able to make passes in a row,” he explained. “Our game was unpredictable in the sense that the ball was always up and down, up and down and today [Friday] we controlled it a bit more through the passes.
“The [big] pitch helped us in that sense and before the penalty we created four chances to score. After half-time the game was almost over. When we play [like that] finally we could recover what we tried at the beginning of the season and what we did in many games. But in the last month or two months, for different circumstances, we could not do that. Hopefully we can start to play again in that sense.”
Badstuber would have been a step towards that. The German, when at his best, uses the ball brilliantly and is rarely caught out in one-on-one situations - which has been a problem for City’s current defenders in Guardiola’s more adventurous systems.
Schalke general manager Christian Heidel is clearly looking for the same characteristics, as he said before the deal was completed: "Badstuber is one of the best players I know regarding his quality to open the game [with his passing]."
Switching to a more basic back four gave City a solid base and allowed them to arrest a run of alarming results, but it was never going to be a long-term solution for Guardiola.
The arrival of Badstuber, had he been able to stay fit, would have allowed City’s perfectionist manager to do things his own way again. The search goes on.