Man City’s biggest problem doesn’t lie on the pitch

The media furore surrounding Manchester City has been focused squarely on whether Manuel Pellegrini will still be at the club next season and about how the club will refresh its squad. City have bowed out of the title race – and whether that was simply last weekend after the Manchester derby or whether that was some months ago now is a matter of some debate – and are simply looking to shore up 4th spot now; City will need to rejig the squad and bring in lots of fresh faces.

All season, the talk has been about Manchester City having an ageing squad. Discussion of this can be found here, here and here. The reason I have linked to all three is because they are found at all times of the season. One when City were very much in a title race, one when City were starting to look like a team on the ropes, and one after the absolute lowest point of the season – the thrashing at Old Trafford.

So we’ve heard all season that City are an ageing side. And it’s true – according to the Mail, City have the 7th highest average age in Europe.

But that doesn’t mean that City are an old team. As Homer Simpson once said, “people can come up with statistics to prove anything”.

The majority of City’s squad is under 30. With the exception of Zabaleta, Toure and Demichelis, the rest of the sure-fire starters are under 30. And Sagna, Lampard and Caballero are the only others who have passed over the horizon and into the dreaded 30s.

That’s six players out of an entire squad, and half of those are squad players. Players that are nice to have around, but Pellegrini wouldn’t lose any sleep over an injury to Bacary Sagna. Older players are still important for experience and to provide strength in depth, but they’re not there to win the titles for the club. City are not reliant on these players. 

The rest of City’s squad is under 30. So it’s not like City are losing games this season because their players are too old. Their age isn’t to blame for their failure. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a huge problem for the club.

City have so many players that are in the 26-30 age bracket, a period when players are usually at their best. They’ve bought so many players based on how high the club believes their performance levels will be, and how they can add to the power and high performance level of the squad. And the only way of doing that is by bringing in players who are close to, or at, their peak. 

An astonishing 14 players in the City squad are in this age bracket. The rest are either younger or older than that, obviously. But only three of the regulars are younger – Wilfried Bony, Eliaquim Mangala and Stevan Jovetic. If you can call them regulars. 

So City may not be an ‘old’ team. They aren’t like the AC Milan of a few years ago, relying solely on club legends like Nesta and Maldini who had been at the club for years and seen better days. But they are a team in danger of replicating this over the next three or four years if they don’t do something to address this problem.

The problem is not so much in having players of this kind of age. But the problem is having a squad made up almost entirely of this kind of age. If you buy anything at all you’re investing in an asset of some kind. Some purchases, like clothes and cars, you buy because you need. You get a lot of use out of them, but you would never hope to sell them on for the same price as you bought them for. Other purchases are investments for the future, because you’re hoping that one day it’ll yield you a return.

City seem to only want to buy what they can use here and now. The problem is, in this age of Financial Fair Play, City can ill-afford to go out and spend £30m on a new player and sell him off for £10m again in a few seasons when he gets to the age of 30.

And they’re in this position now: City will try to refresh their squad by bringing in new players, but in order to finance those players, they’ll need to sell some of the ones they already have. But they won’t get anywhere near as much for the old ones as they bought them for. Nor will they be able to sell old players to recoup the money they’ll shell out on new, younger players. So if they buy Paul Pogba for £100m, they’d be lucky to get even a quarter of that for Yaya Toure. They’d need to sell four Toures to get a Pogba. And how can any team cope with losing four players as important to the team as Yaya Toure is for City? 

The simple answer is that they can’t. Liverpool almost crumbled after losing just one. But if City don’t bite the bullet here, they face having a team chock full of 30-somethings.

It’s the performance of the club in the transfer market, not on the pitch, that looks to be the biggest problem for City over the next couple of seasons. Because it’s not that City have old players, they don’t. It’s that they have an entire squad getting older at the same time. And that’s a ticking time bomb.