It’s no secret that Manchester City’s biggest problem this season has been an area where modern football has begun to place greater and greater importance.
For the last few seasons, City have been using a pair of ageing full-backs picked up from Arsenal for minimal fees, charity shop finds that directly contradict both City’s ambition and wealth.
To lavish £150m worth of talent upon Pep Guardiola just a season after bringing the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Raheem Sterling to the club with the Catalan in mind seems a strange thing to do when your biggest problem is left completely untouched.
As if to illustrate the point, Guardiola has played with Sterling and Leroy Sane as wing-backs at points this season; he has utilised Fernandinho as a full-back; and most strangely, he has converted Jesus Navas into a right-back.
The Spaniard’s biggest quality is his work-rate and his willingness to carry out instructions: in a modern full-back – a position that has become more metronomic and athletic over the years – that’s no bad thing.
There is no question, though, that if Guardiola sees Navas as a Manchester City right-back next season, it’s as back-up and not as first-choice.
Man City have offered Jesus Navas a contract extension and he's set to stay on for another year as second choice right-back. Not signed yet.
— Sam Lee (@Sammy_Goal) May 2, 2017
Some around the club might be unhappy at the idea of the former Sevilla winger being given a new contract at the club. Journalists have mocked his goalscoring and assist record (there’s no doubt it is both comical and ill-befitting of a Premier League winger) but Navas is no winger, it appears. Not anymore.
Congratulations to Jesus Navas, who on Sunday brought up 100 PL games since his last goal. Quite an achievement.
— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) May 2, 2017
There’s a bigger issue at stake, though. Whilst City may well have the money to buy four new full-backs next season, there is a hitch: buying four entails buying at least two who are second-choice. Not only is there the possibility of finding duds, or even players who can’t settle in their new environment, there’s also the very real possibility that the kind of full-back needed won’t be willing to come to City to sit on the bench. It’s a problem even Barcelona have faced this season – after stupidly getting rid of Dani Alves, they’ve been unable to replace him adequately.
Presumably that’s where Navas comes in: a willing runner who will carry out instructions to the letter and – despite his non-existent end product – is comfortable enough on the ball in advanced positions to support his wingers and give an extra option to his team when in possession.
The other, better full-backs with that skill-set are either unobtainable or they’re unwilling to sit on the bench. But that means when City do finally make a purchase in the right-back position this summer, they’ll need to make sure it’s a good one.
Last summer, Guardiola bought Claudio Bravo and loaned-out Joe Hart. Clearly, you don’t buy a goalkeeper with the idea that he might be bad enough to be dropped, but given the only replacement was Willy Caballero, City were in trouble. The Argentine keeper, like Navas, is fine to have as backup, as a player you can call on for a few games in a row because of muscle injuries and suspensions, but you don’t want him to become first choice – even if he did a mostly solid job when called upon. That experience might burn a little.
What that means for City next season is that they can’t afford to buy a right-back who won’t perform, either because of adjustment to a new league or because they simply weren’t as good as expected.
Kyle Walker has been linked with City – and also Barcelona, who are in need of that Dani Alves replacement – and that seems like the perfect option in some ways. Because not only can he do the job adequately, the risk of acclimatisation problems is minimal. After all, this is a boy from Sheffield who is considered one of the best in his position in England.
He has five Premier League assists this season – more than any other defender – he is athletic and attacking, and he has the stamina to do the two jobs a modern full-back needs to do: provide attacking width and chase back to prevent counter-attacks.
To many, keeping Jesus Navas as backup looks like a big risk. The reality is, this is the conservative play. City need to change their full-backs, that much is obvious. But if they’re to do any better than they have done this season, they simply can’t afford to take any chances with their full-backs. The likes of Serge Aurier – who, in his apparent dislike of authority, is the exact antithesis of Navas or the kind of character Guardiola likes in his team – or Djibril Sidibe are risks for City at this point.
Walker, with Navas as backup, represents the safe option for Guardiola. And that in itself shows you how high the stakes are with this decision, Pep doesn’t often make the safe call.