The January transfer window marked one of Manchester City’s quietest in recent memory.
The defending league champions made just one addition during the month, acquiring Japanese midfielder Ko Itakura who has been sent out on loan to Groningen for the rest of the season, but were otherwise radio silent, content to continue on the title chase with the squad as is.
That complacency though, was in fact a crucial mistake. And despite strong rumblings from the fanbase during the window, Pep Guardiola remained especially adamant that the club would not be pursuing one man in particular who would have provided a certain boost to his club’s shot at a second consecutive league title: Wolverhampton midfielder Ruben Neves.
“He’s an excellent player but there are many clubs in the world, many holding midfielders in the world, and most of them can play here,” the Spanish manager said. “A month ago, I started reading – ‘Rúben Neves, £100m’. That is not going to happen, we are not going to pay £100m for a holding midfielder.”
Indeed, acquiring the 21-year old Neves would have come at a steep price, but was Pep right to rule out such a potentially lucrative purchase?
The former Porto captain exploded onto the scene of English football in the Championship a year ago, earning Wolves promotion and himself widespread acclaim as one of the top young players in the world with his deft passing, top-level vision and cracking shots from distance.
And though his consistency has dropped ever so slightly in his first Premier League campaign, Neves’ quality has remained on display and his contributions have Wolves sitting 7th in the Premier League.
Dominant in the defensive midfield, dangerous when he pushes up on the attack – the Portuguese international has been impressive once again.
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Manchester City, meanwhile, will now embark on the final half of their season thin in the defensive midfield position and a lone injury away from major vulnerability.
Fernandinho has once again been remarkable for Guardiola in 2018-19. But when the 33-year-old Brazilian is not on the pitch, City become a weaker team and have fallen in two of the three league matches he’s missed this season.
On those days, Pep attempted to plug the hole with Fabian Delph, then Ilkay Gundogan and most ambitiously John Stones, with none able to match Fernandinho’s impact on the pitch.
With so much of their success tied to Fernandinho’s presence, Manchester City’s failure to bring in a reinforcement leaves them an injury away from stumbling and falling off Liverpool’s rampant pace.
And while an expansive middle ground did exist between making no signings at all and splurging on Neves’ massive transfer fee, there was no better option for Guardiola’s City in the near term and the future. The shunned move is one they’ll regret not making.
In acquiring Neves from Wolverhampton, Manchester City would have solved the crucial problem laid out above. His level of quality and experience – he made 18 Champions League appearances at Porto, per Transfermarkt – would have allowed him to step in immediately as a rotational midfielder in Guardiola’s squad, one who would provide respite for Fernandinho, and give City an insurance policy should they lose their first-choice defensive midfielder to injury.
As much as Neves was the perfect fit to bolster the squad now, he may have also been the answer for the future. Though Fernandinho has remained in form and holds a contract with the club that runs through next season, he’s fast approaching his third decade of senior football. A proven yet developing 21-year- old talent fits the mould for his successor perfectly.
With Neves, Manchester City would have given themselves a bridge to their future while adding security for this season. Guardiola may have a point in expressing reluctance over Wolverhampton’s reportedly hefty asking price, actually £10million greater than claimed by the City gaffer, but he was sorely mistaken to have spurned a move for Neves this time around.