Jesus Navas can be the saviour of new-look Manchester City
Among the more unusual of the many new corporate sponsors Manchester City announced this summer was an official hedge fund partner, though they have not laid off too many bets about their chances of becoming a side feared across the Premier League and Europe.
After three and a half years dominated by talk of who City might throw cash at next, the noisy neighbours have left the sound and fury to others and quietly constructed the best squad in the Premier League: one which answers so many of the questions which have persisted for so long about a lack of width and an absence of pace from midfield.
Most of the anticipation about the side who open at home to Newcastle United revolves around Jesus Navas – the first genuinely dangerous wide player of the Abu Dhabi era – and Fernandinho, a high-energy midfielder in the mould of Chelsea's Ramires, who covers a lot of ground and who, operating alongside Yaya Touré, will allow the Ivorian to push further up the pitch. Stevan Jovetic, from Fiorentina, provides another wide option and Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla), the man they call The Beast, provides the same physical qualities as Edin Dzeko because Manuel Pellegrini likes a target man.
The Engineer is the name Pellegrini has always carried, because he became a civil engineer when he retired as a player, working on construction projects after the devastating 1985 Algarrobo earthquake in his native Chile. But Pellegrini builds in other ways. The 59-year-old's arrival feels like a warm breeze drifting up the Irwell after the politicking of the Roberto Mancini era. It is hard to overstate the sense of liberation for players and staff who were tired of the message that only Italians were good enough, which Mancini was often willing to convey in public. Pellegrini is a manager in the literal sense of the word, already working to find out about the home lives of his players, and one of the questions of the season is whether this approach can turn Dzeko into a player Europe fears. The prospect has always been there. Dzeko secured City 15 points with his goals last season, a tally bettered only by Robin van Persie (27) and Gareth Bale (24). Mancini was never able to provide the private encouragement required by this relatively sensitive soul.
Don't expect Pellegrini to be too forthcoming about what entails. Seeking some meaningful conversation with him has been hard going, not least at his press conference on Friday, at which his prime concern by the end seemed to be to getting out of the room. His English is excellent – superior to Mancini's – but when someone repeated his curious, though irrefutable observation that "I am alive" – to be sure he had said it – he was under the impression he was being called "a liar". It all got rather messy. City fans will certainly take a lack of public discussion from their manager. Butter would not melt in Mancini's mouth at press conferences before he left for training sessions with a squad who largely loathed him. The part demotivation played in City's struggle to retain their title is unquantifiable but it was substantial.
Pellegrini has been defined as a 4-3-3 disciple, though City will not be so predictable. "I am very flexible in that sense," he said on Friday. "I don't have to play every week exactly the same. We will see for a lot of reasons which is the best one. I am not afraid of different ways." He has certainly shown adaptability. At Malaga last season, his Spanish style of intense possession football morphed into a rapid counter-attacking game.
But the players at his disposal point to the technical 4-3-3 game he inculcated at Villarreal, and Navas really could be one of the names of the new campaign. City's director of football Txiki Begiristain has told of his shock at hearing that the player was available – "Navas? Navas of Sevilla?" – and the player was on board for £14.9m by June. The prodigious young Navas left Sevilla's pre-season training camp in an inconsolable state eight years ago, desperately homesick and suffering panic attacks. They say his family and his religious convictions have played a significant part in him putting that in the past and providing the thrusting input from the right flank which took Sevilla to their 2006 and 2007 Uefa Cup triumphs. It was in 2010 that he seemed to have put these private struggles in the past.
Begiristain confronted Navas with all the possible negatives about Manchester – language, rain, distance from his family – to be sure that he was not "misleading" him. The presence in Manchester of the winger's close friend Negredo, who scored 85 times in 180 Sevilla appearances, may help.
Already, in pre-season, City have looked a more open side, with some of the consequences that might have for defence. Eight goals have been shipped in the last three games and, though pre-season cannot be taken at face value, that is not what the meanest defence of the past two Premier League seasons has been known for. If there is a weakness in this squad it is that the defence lacks depth, which is why Begiristain has gone back to seek Real Madrid's Pepe, who, as we revealed last month, was their prime summer target. Pellegrini was non-committal about Martin Demichelis, Bayern Munich's Argentinian centre-back, who is another target. "I don't know at the moment," he said of that pursuit, though defensive reinforcements do seem on the way.
Joe Hart's error for England against Scotland raised the issue of the goalkeeper's occasional slips last season with City, though it is hardly an issue. Hart is a strength. Pellegrini warned that he selects on performance, not reputation. "My teams do not play by name." But "the past is past," he added. "Of course, there is last season but we have a new season now. I hope Joe will have the performance we all know he has had in his whole career. I have a lot of trust in him."
The future of Gareth Barry is less clear after his fine season last year. Pellegrini said the Englishman wants to stay but is free to go if he has better options.
Pellegrini said he was delighted that City had avoided much attention. "That is why we did it the way we did it. We thought it was the best way for us. We knew what we needed as new players for us." What his new club most require are consistency and an ability to deliver away what they do at home. That they should have relinquished the title while dropping only two points at home all season says everything. Clinching the 2013-14 title seems like a formidable challenge with a new manager, new system and embedding five new front-line players. But this review of their squad does not even touch upon Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Samir Nasri, who may also be reborn now released from Mancini's shadow. If it all clicks fast the Premier League has something to fear.
Belfast Telegraph Digital