Manchester City's transfer policy this summer appeared to be a productive one, but it was questioned by several writers of this parish, who noted that while Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas and Fernandinho were all good players, it was debatable as to whether they were of the level that would turn City into a genuinely elite team capable of competing with the best in Europe.
Predictions are mostly a game of chance, so numerable are the factors beyond the ken of anyone able to hazard a guess, so we won't be indulging in too much horn-tooting, but that appears to have been exactly the case as City have found themselves wanting on both the European stage and in the Premier League. They managed to get out of the group stage this time, but were defeated by the first serious opposition they came up against in an out-of-sorts Barcelona. They also look likely to lose the league title to a severely limited Liverpool team that should have no right to compete with them.
City's entire progress since their takeover has been behind schedule. They initially stuttered, then scraped a title through Roberto Mancini from a weak pack, then quickly regressed and now appear to have hit a ceiling they are finding more difficult to break than any other. Other clubs possess players of a quality that are difficult to buy, and City have struggled as a result because of a lack of imagination from their transfer policy. A constant feature of oil-rich City is that they have continually been burdened with squad players who are not quite good enough for the level they are now at. The difference now is that they do not seem sure how to get to the next stage.
Not immediately launching themselves into the position of Bayern Munich or Real Madrid was understandable, of course. There was still considerable daylight between the real European elite and a club which was short on genuine, game-changing world-class talent of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Franck Ribery, Lionel Messi, and so on. Sergio Aguero, Yaya Toure and, on this season's form, David Silva, were the only top players they possessed — distinctly second-tier among the best talents in the world, and only three in number.
Yet the summer window did nothing to address that. The moves were needed, true — a genuine wide option with pace was required, as was a solid all-round midfielder. Fernandinho and Jesus Navas have been exactly that, yet the overall strategy has been revealed to be a weak one. The players they bought were stop-gaps, neither world-class players in their prime or youngsters who were likely to achieve it in the future. Everybody knows that buying existing elite players is no basis on which a team can be constructed — it is an opportunistic science, and the chances of ending up with a functional, balanced team using such a policy would be remote and based purely on chance.
Fortunately, there is another way. It is one which has long been deployed by big clubs in small nations like Porto and Ajax, then spread to the likes of Celtic and the lower reaches of the Premier League and was even adopted by Manchester United, when Glazer austerity was more pressing and the post-Ferguson upheaval had not forced open the purse. Young talent needs to be secured at the right age. Not so young the potential is clouded and it will be too early for them to be of any use in a league campaign, not so old they will cost too much, or more likely, have already moved on to a club where it will be too expensive or difficult to prise them away. City's biggest enemies all have players who were acquired by this method — Eden Hazard, Oscar, Aaron Ramsey, Wayne Rooney and David de Gea are among them. All of them would have probably ensured a victory in the Premier League for City this year if they had been wearing a light blue shirt.
Previously, we pointed out that the likes of Luka Modric, Eden Hazard and Javi Martinez had bypassed them without a fight. The club made an effort to sign Isco, but seemingly not enough. They also chose to overpay for solid first-teamers like Fernandinho and Navas before settling for an inferior option in attack in Negredo, who after his initial hot-streak has had a distinctly mediocre record. He came at the expense of a serious pursuit for either Edinson Cavani or Radamel Falcao — rare, already established world-class players. Again, City would almost certainly have won the league with either.
This summer, more players of the required talent are again available. Rumours persist about Cavani's unhappiness in Paris, while poorer clubs in England who cannot help but accept large offers have world-class talent in the making in Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw. Diego Costa is certain to be available, Marco Reus could leave Dortmund, and there is a possibility that Xherdan Shaqiri or one of Juventus' two world-class central midfielders in Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba could move for the right price. Eliaquim Mangala looks to be a fine centre-back in the making. Julian Draxler is also likely to be available for the right fee. Manchester United, Chelsea, and even Arsenal are known to be pursuing several of these targets. City have been seriously linked to none of them.
There is probably more doubt surrounding the likely targets of City this summer than any of the other big clubs in England of course, so they could well be planning a heist on any of the above. But the total lack of evidence to suggest that they are should be worrying for City fans. Last season was almost excusable because they did need to flesh out their squad to give themselves a complete range of options. But now, what is easily the best-balanced squad in the league looks likely to fail, when they should realistically be miles ahead of the pack. This summer, they can change that. But they will need to learn from their mistakes and alter their policy to reflect their situation before their rivals begin to surpass them.