Alexis, Jorginho and now De Jong: Why Man City are missing out on their big transfer targets

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The Premier League champions have secured a number of top players using their strict policy but have also missed out on several priority signings

Manchester City’s team would look very different now if they had got all of their priority transfers over the line: Alexis Sanchez on the left, Jorginho in midfield and Dani Alves at right-back.

You could argue that City have dodged a few bullets there, although that does not account for the possibility that they would be performing much better for Pep Guardiola, who is getting the best out of the vast majority of his squad.

It also misses the point slightly, as these are players that City wanted to sign, and were very close to doing so.

No club signs all of their targets but Frenkie De Jong can now be added to the list of near misses, after he eventually spurned the overtures of City (and PSG) to join Barcelona.

Guardiola was asked about De Jong recently and while he was at pains to point out that he was not talking specifically about the 21-year-old, he said his club need to be smarter when it comes to fending off rival interest from the biggest clubs in world football.

"Normally, when you are involved with Real Madrid and Barcelona, you are going to lose; no chance," he conceded. "You have to be quicker and more efficient."

That has been City’s approach and it was no different with De Jong; at the end of 2018 Barca sources were pessimistic on their chances of concluding a deal because the Premier League champions had put in so much groundwork, and were willing to pay Ajax’s transfer fee and De Jong’s wage demands.

There were a few twists and turns along the way but Barca eventually won out not just because De Jong wants to play with Lionel Messi at Camp Nou, but because Barca agreed to pay well above Ajax’s asking price, as well as wages of around £270,000 per week, including bonuses.

Pep quote

In the end, it was good old-fashioned financial muscle that proved decisive and it has left some City fans and plenty of outsiders wondering if the wealthy champions could have splashed more of the cash that they obviously have.

City’s transfer approach is broadly this: they try to reach agreements with the players as soon as possible, and use their desire to play for Guardiola as leverage against the selling club. It is about City’s idea of value.

This has worked well in many cases. Bernardo Silva, Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Riyad Mahrez, among others, were signed this way. City have paid upwards of £50m for those players but they have regarded them all as good value. 

The approach does not always work out, though, and it has led to some high-profile misses in the past two years. There is a lot of risk involved.

For example, they were unlucky with Jorginho because they had struck agreement with both the midfielder and Napoli, only for the Italian club to flat-out refuse to sell to City, so they could get a higher fee – and compensation for Maurizio Sarri – from Chelsea.

That was an unforeseen turn of events but it could be argued that had City met Napoli’s demands much earlier instead of haggling they would have eliminated the possibility of Chelsea making their move.

City held out for what they saw as a fair price and that is what they did for Alexis Sanchez a year earlier.

They were always confident that the Chilean would sign for them that summer; despite interest from PSG and Bayern Munich, he had his heart set on playing for Guardiola.

Arsenal did not want to sell to a domestic rival but City’s approach left them with no choice. On transfer deadline day, Arsenal finally agreed to a £60m sale and Alexis even signed a City contract, but the deal fell through because the Gunners did not have time to find a replacement.

Each club pointed the finger at the other but City took the risk in running down the clock in a bid to force Arsenal not only into selling to an English club, but for the kind of figure City wanted to pay. Had they made their move sooner, they may have got their man.

Pep quote

Then there was Dani Alves’ remarkable 11th hour U-turn which left Guardiola and City furious.

It is hard to criticise the club too much for missing out on the Brazilian, given he had met Guardiola, agreed personal terms and engineered a cut-price exit from Juventus on the sole basis that he wanted to work with the Catalan again.

He eventually joined PSG because his wife wanted to live in Paris, but again there are ways City could have been “quicker and more efficient” – for one thing, they let him go on holiday to Brazil before putting pen to paper. Could they not have eliminated any room for PSG’s overtures by acting quicker?

The other side to this is that City want their prospective new players to be 100 per cent committed to playing for City and Guardiola, but if City expect loyalty from their transfer targets, could they not show a bit back when it comes to the crunch?

Their approach is a two-way street and if a player has given them his word, could City not go above their valuation of that player if the selling club holds out for a few extra million?

Not in all cases, of course; Jorginho could have been signed earlier for not much more than the eventual agreement, but City showed the merits of their approach by refusing to pay £90m for Mahrez a year ago and then signing him for £60m in the summer instead.

And while they certainly could just pay up, given their resources, that hardly promotes the kind of responsible spending that so many rival clubs demand of them. More importantly, it would do nothing to change the perception that they can be taken for a ride by clubs and agents.

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City are still big spenders but by refusing to pay over the odds for players, they are trying to show the world that they will not be held to ransom. As Guardiola recently said, "A month ago, I started reading 'Ruben Neves, £100m.' That is not going to happen. We are not going to pay £100m for a holding midfielder."

That is an admirable and sensible business stance, and it has often been successful.

But while other clubs remain willing to dig deep into their pockets for top players, it does mean City will continue to miss out on important targets. Barca’s push for De Jong is further proof of that.

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