The transfer error Man City must correct if they are to fix £75m midfield problem

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Rodri had got the game off he requested. “Absolutely, he is going to rest on Wednesday as well,” deadpanned Pep Guardiola. The chances are that Carlo Ancelotti was not fooled. Manchester City, after all, are unbeaten in the last 66 matches in which Rodri has featured. They snapped a four-game losing streak without him in the Premier League by defeating Luton 5-1 on Saturday.

If nothing else, they have proved they can hammer Luton without the man Guardiola calls the world’s best midfielder: he was also an unused substitute for February’s 6-2 FA Cup thrashing. That was inspired by last season’s defining double act, in Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne. Saturday was different: a victory with the imprint of the new. Three of last summer’s four main signings – Mateo Kovacic, Jeremy Doku and Josko Gvardiol – scored; the fourth, Matheus Nunes, was denied a goal only by the upright. It was the first time all four had started together; in a small sample size, it was a winning formula. A rampant one, arguably, given that they had 19 shots between them.

So £200m was well spent? A different interpretation will feel feasible when the teamsheets arrive on Wednesday. Probably only Gvardiol will start. “He improves a lot,” said Guardiola, and he was not merely referring to the right-foot, long-range shooting that has brought the Croatian two goals in as many games. “An incredible talent,” added his manager. The world’s second-most expensive centre-back is being reinvented as a left-back and a goal threat.

Then there is Doku – mercurial, magnificent on his day, but his contributions coming in fits and spurts. Guardiola prefers Jack Grealish’s ability to retain possession, and City’s defensive record can deteriorate when Doku starts. Neither, though, is the reason Rodri has been indispensable and irreplaceable. And if the over-reliance on Rodri has been exacerbated by the absence of alternatives, by the failure of the player signed to be his understudy, in the underused and then exiled Kalvin Phillips, the fact is that City signed two central midfielders last summer. The chances are they will look to sign two more this summer.

Nunes and Kovacic represent different problems. The Croatian was terrific on Saturday but it was a rarity, a game in which he excelled without Rodri. His best displays have tended to come alongside the Spaniard. Arguably his worst was at Arsenal, when Rodri was banned. He was little better in the defeat at Wolves, also when his usual sidekick was suspended. He got a Pep talk ahead of Luton. “We spoke and said, ‘You can do it’,” said his manager. But in a match when City had 74 per cent of possession and 37 shots, he was scarcely required to be a defensive midfielder.

Kovacic had struggled against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu. In one respect, he is the anti-Doku – likely to keep the ball, often chosen for the major matches. And yet one theory is that a man who won four Champions Leagues without beginning any of the finals is better as a squad player; that the mistake was not buying him, but relying on him to replace Ilkay Gundogan. Which, Saturday’s fine strike notwithstanding, has dual problems: he is neither the goalscoring threat nor a player capable of anchoring the midfield on his own.

Buying Nunes, however, may simply have been an error. Infamously described as “one of the best players in the world” by Guardiola when he was at Sporting Lisbon – a verdict the Catalan has since retracted – Nunes may be one of the worst signings of City’s recent years. They have won 14 of the 15 games he has started, but that is a reflection of the weakness of the opponents.

Matheus Nunes is unlikely to be trusted in a fixture like Real Madrid on Wednesday (Getty Images)
Matheus Nunes is unlikely to be trusted in a fixture like Real Madrid on Wednesday (Getty Images)

City are probably stuck with Nunes. If an attacking midfielder arrives in the summer – perhaps Lucas Paqueta, ahead of him on last year’s shopping list, or Jamal Musiala – it will be more a consequence of a possible departure of Bernardo Silva, with his annual quest to find a Mediterranean climate, or De Bruyne, if Saudi Arabia is calling. Whichever, they would require a high-class addition, a possible match-winner which Nunes, with one goal in 66 games for Wolves and City, is not.

But whether or not anyone leaves, a prime requirement is a more defensive presence capable of operating either alongside Rodri or, occasionally, instead of him, to ensure he does not chalk up 3,497 minutes by early April again next season. Bruno Guimaraes might be both ideal and expensive but the fact Rodri’s £62.8m fee made him a club record signing when bought shows the importance of a pivotal position to Guardiola.

Last year, City’s midfield makeover cost £75m and bought players who should be back-ups, good enough to flourish against Luton, probably belonging on the bench against Real Madrid. And while fatigue may have been the reason Rodri was unusually poor in the Bernabeu, he will be back, probably too important to get another rest this season.