Top teams stay at the top because they strike while the iron is hot. Feeling "comfortable" isn't an option; they are always looking to add quality to their squads where possible—even if it upsets the already successful status quo a little in the process.
Evidence of this philosophy can often be found in Catalonia, Spain, and 2018 has been no different so far. Despite opening up a 16-point lead over Real Madrid in La Liga and effectively sewing up a 25th title, Barcelona have forked out £142 million for Philippe Coutinho—a player who can’t even play for them in the UEFA Champions League latter stages.
To Barca's board, though, that won't matter. If the opportunity arises to add a world-class player to your setup, you take it. Knock-on effects and reshuffles can be discussed later.
Unsurprisingly, given the fact they've worked hard to mirror Barcelona in so many ways, Manchester City appear to be subscribing to the same philosophy.
Their target in January is Alexis Sanchez, and according to B/R's Dean Jones, they might finally close the deal and secure the Chilean’s signature in an approximate £30 million deal:
Dean Jones @DeanJonesBR
Alexis moving to City in this window seems more likely every day. If City offer £20m plus another £5-10m in add-ons, I think they'll get him2018-1-10 08:05:29
"He is a class, class player. A fighter in spirit, a character, a winner." That was how City manager Pep Guardiola described Alexis in December 2016, per PA Sport (h/t Sky Sports). His admiration for the Chile international isn't a secret; it's an on-record statement that has only fuelled the tide of speculation consistently linking the two for a reunification.
Should it happen, Guardiola will land himself a player who can fulfill multiple roles and positions, accept tactical instruction, work his socks off for the team and, most importantly, add to a burgeoning collection of elite-level difference-makers in the final third.
Exactly how he fits into this City XI, whose position he might take or whether his addition could cause a shift in other players' roles is a hot topic.
Let's drill down into it and, using an understanding of Guardiola's tactical past and present, find some early answers.
At surface level, a swoop for Sanchez might look a touch gluttonous. Guardiola typically plays one striker, and adding Alexis to an already mighty collection of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus seems like overkill at worst, and just downright unfair on everyone else at best.
However, Jesus' recent injury has highlighted how frail City can suddenly become in that area of the pitch.
Until the Brazilian recovers, Aguero will need to be protected, as his own history of fitness and injury issues doesn't inspire confidence he can carry the load. City are Champions League favourites; Guardiola can't afford for fitness issues to cost him in pursuit of silverware.
Landing Alexis would ease concerns over the health status of his striking corps heading into the second half of the season, and it would also gift the City boss an edge he seemingly thinks he's lacking.
Guardiola rightly sees the Chilean as a player who can perform in arguably the most difficult and demanding position in world football: the false nine.
It's the role Lionel Messi performed so well for him at Barcelona, and it requires an incredible, 360-degree awareness of what's happening, a deep understanding of attacking movements and top-tier technical skills.
December saw Guardiola finally tiptoe towards that false-nine model, deploying Raheem Sterling there in the Manchester derby with Jesus (left) and Leroy Sane (right) wide of him. It harked back to his use of David Villa and Samuel Eto'o as wide men with Messi as the pivot they played off at Barca.
We saw a similar system in action on Tuesday against Bristol City in the Carabao Cup semi-final first leg, with Aguero being safeguarded from the beginning and Sterling starting up front.
That the Argentina international was parachuted on to score the winner suggests it didn't work, but City created plenty of chances—particularly via Sane hitting the byline and crossing low from the left.
Still, Sterling doesn't feel like the ideal fit for that role, and Aguero has always been more of a poacher than a true link player or interpreter of play. Guardiola's trust in his options here is lacking, and that's the problem Alexis essentially solves.
Recruiting Alexis to play as a false nine—a striker who drops in from the forward line to the midfield to create space for his wide forwards and create numerical overloads in deeper areas—makes perfect sense. The role he's played for Chile over the years has, at times, incorporated elements of this, and Guardiola's aforementioned 2016 appraisal of him held some telling comments:
"In Barcelona maybe I didn't help him too much because he played wide. He can do that, but he is better between the lines, closer to the goal."
It seems Guardiola's intent for Alexis is to be the striker he feels he doesn't have. It doesn't put Jesus' role in jeopardy—his wide position in the Manchester derby would perhaps become a more regular occurrence—but it does place Aguero on notice.
That said, with the Argentinian likely to leave City for Independiente in 2019, per Sky Sports, a succession plan is a must regardless.
"He can play there [centre-forward] and in several positions—left, right," Guardiola enthused in 2016. That versatility will be crucial were he to join City, as he will at some point simply have to make do with playing in different positions—or else he will be plonked squarely on the bench.
He has played from the flank for the large majority of his club career, be it under Guardiola or Gerardo Martino at Barcelona or under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. Flicking wide won't be a problem for him; in fact, it might just be easier for him in the short term than playing as the No. 9.
He would be more effective coming in off the left than off the right, as his curling crosses, long-range shooting and clever passing would all then come from his strong foot. He's rarely had to operate on the opposite flank over the last four years, and while he’d be no failure, it would severely limit what he’s able to bring to the table.
This puts Sane, who has essentially been an undisputed first choice from that flank since September, on alert.
Just like Coutinho's move to Barcelona, the signing of Alexis would make a few walls crumble at City.
That may seem ill-advised given how machine-like and slick they look, but ensuring the team does not become stale or predictable will be of paramount concern to Guardiola in 2018. You stay on top by continuing to improve and evolve.
Further clouding the attacking line with the addition of Alexis may rubber-stamp a move that seems to have been in the offing for a little while: Bernardo Silva's switch to No. 8.
Guardiola has already had trouble finding playing time for the Portugal international this season. "It's so difficult to leave him out," he said in December, per the Manchester Evening News—and it's only going to get harder...unless he moves him.
Just before the hour mark in the 0-0 draw with Crystal Palace on December 31, Sterling's introduction to the fray at the expense of Ilkay Gundogan saw Bernardo move infield to play as Kevin De Bruyne's partner. He looked at home there, able to use his touch and technique to keep the ball moving; at no point did he seem a weak link despite his slight stature.
The sight of him strolling around and dictating playing from a central area hammered home another salient point: Despite feeling like a "Pep player" (small, wizard-like, creative, press-resistant) he doesn't fit the profile of winger Guardiola has used at all. Not at City (Sterling, Sane), not at Bayern Munich (Arjen Robben, Kingsley Coman, Douglas Costa), not at Barcelona (Pedro, Villa, Eto'o).
Perhaps his natural home at City is as a No. 8, rotating with (and perhaps eventually replacing) David Silva while Gundogan does the same with De Bruyne.
Of all the profiles in Guardiola's system, this is the one Bernardo suits the best, and the Alexis acquisition might just expedite that process.
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