Pep Guardiola is undergoing the biggest facelift of his Manchester City tenure in a bid to freshen up the squad in pursuit of a fifth Premier League title in six years and that elusive first Champions League crown for the Citizens.
Of the 27 players who made a first-team appearance in Guardiola’s first season in charge at the Etihad Stadium in 2016-17, just four – Ederson, Ilkay Gundogan, John Stones and Kevin De Bruyne – remain in place.
It is very much a case of out with the old and in with the new in the blue half of Manchester this window, with Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Oleksandr Zinchenko and long-serving Fernandinho all making way.
The arrivals of Erling Haaland and Kalvin Phillips will arguably make City stronger than they were, while Stefan Ortega should be an improvement on Zack Steffen as back-up to Ederson, but Zinchenko’s exit has left Guardiola light at left-back.
City have been strongly linked with Brighton and Hove Albion’s Marc Cucurella, though the Seagulls’ reported £50million asking price – £20m higher than the English champions are apparently willing to pay – has led to a standoff.
However, with a little over a month of the transfer window to run, there is still plenty of time for the clubs to negotiate a fee, or for City to instead switch focus elsewhere to other targets – if indeed they have any.
With that in mind, Stats perform looks at exactly why the links with Cucurella are so strong, and the alternatives mentioned by Guardiola to provide competition to Joao Cancelo on the left side of defense this season.
— Brighton & Hove Albion (@OfficialBHAFC) July 19, 2022
MAKING HIS MARC OUTSIDE OF SPAIN
Zinchenko was far from a regular for City last season, starting just 18 of their 54 matches, but he was used a more 10 times from the substitutes’ bench and provided an option both at left-back and in central midfield.
Versatility is a key component if a player is to thrive under Guardiola, and in Cucurella, the Catalan coach has a player also available to switch it up and play in a few different positions.
The 24-year-old was used predominantly in his favored left-back position last term, while also filling in as a left-wing-back and as a left-sided center-back at a time of need for Brighton, despite previous doubts over his ability to defend.
“There were people who said I couldn’t play as a full-back because I couldn’t defend, but now I’m proving I can even play as a center-back in a back three,” Cucurella told the Spanish outlet Marca earlier this year.
“What I was looking for was to play as a full-back, which is what I have done all my life. I had never played left center-back before, but [Brighton manager Graham Potter] has given me the confidence to feel very comfortable there.”
Thrown in at the deep end as Brighton dealt with an injury crisis midway through the 2021-22 season – his first outside his native Spain – Cucurella more than passed the test and added further strings to his bow.
CUCURELLA THE ALL-ROUNDER
Whether operating at full-back, wing-back or centre-back, Cucurella helped Brighton keep 11 clean sheets in the Premier League last season, a tally that only six other clubs could better.
Far from being someone who is unable to defend, he led the way among players who played predominantly as full-backs in the English top flight last season in terms of winning back possession, doing so 247 times.
He also ranked behind only Tyrick Mitchell for tackles – 93 compared to the Crystal Palace youngster’s 104 – showing he is happy to get stuck in when required.
The one cap Spain international also proved he is capable of attacking, with his 40 open-play chances placing him behind only Reece James (42) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (51), who are two of the finest full-backs around.
That translated to just one assist – Cancelo had seven last season, for context – but some of that can be put down to the finishing of Brighton’s attacking players, rather than Cucurella alone failing to deliver from wide.
Indeed, his expected assists (xA) return of 2.82 last season, while maybe still looking low on the face of it, was still the 14th highest of any full-back.
Given his near decade spent in the Barcelona youth set-up and then on the fringes of the first team, it comes as no surprise to see Cucurella is very comfortable with the ball at his feet.
The 1,558 passes he completed last season was bettered – again among those who can be considered full-backs by trade – by only Andy Robertson (1,642), Alexander-Arnold (1,684) and Cancelo (2,516).
A GAMBLE WORTH TAKING?
On the basis of those numbers, and Guardiola’s ability to further mold players in his own way, bringing in Cucurella this window really would make sense for City. The problem, of course, is Brighton’s mammoth valuation.
In a window that has seen bit-part player Zinchenko joins Arsenal for £32m, and given Cucurella has four more years to run on the deal signed last season, Albion see no reason to sell their reigning Fans and Players’ Player of the Year.
Guardiola appears to be in no immediate rush to strengthen in that position and has suggested he is happy to stick with what he has if an agreement cannot be reached with Brighton.
“We are in negotiations. If it doesn’t happen, we’ve alternatives,” the Catalan said earlier this week. “Cancelo, Josh Wilson-Esbrand is a young talent, [Nathan] Ake can play there…”
While City already boasts one of – same would say the – best left-backs in world football on the basis of last season, going into the new campaign without any true cover in that position would be a risk.
Assuming reports of Brighton’s £50m valuation are correct, City would be paying almost £20m more than they received from Arsenal for Zinchenko, and would take their net spend for the window to around £20m.
But when Guardiola truly wants a player, he tends to get him. Indeed, City has already splashed out £50m or more on Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Cancelo in the full-back department during Pep’s time in charge.
As a player with Barcelona pedigree, who has himself in numerous positions in his short time in England and is still young enough to further adapt and improve, do not bet against Cucurella City’s vast overhaul.