All reports indicate Premier League leaders Manchester City are on the brink of breaking their own transfer record to recruit Athletic Bilbao defender Aymeric Laporte. The 23-year-old has amassed over 200 appearances for the Basque giants in La Liga but has yet to win a senior international cap. The transfer will make him the world’s second most expensive defender – behind only Liverpool’s Virgil Van Dijk – and has naturally generated a great level of interest, but who is Laporte and why are City prepared to spend so much money on his capture?
The move must firstly be put into context of Pep Guardiola’s side’s transfer policy across the past 18 months, with a recruitment drive focused upon strengthening the club’s defence. The Catalan tactician inherited a defence which needed total overhaul, with Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany – himself with a limited shelf-life – identified as the only players of requisite quality. Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta, Martin Demichelis and Aleksandar Kolarov were all allowed to depart on free transfers, with Eliaquim Mangala loaned out in the hope of an eventual permanent departure.
During his first season, Guardiola only landed one new defender – the highly-rated, if somewhat error-prone, John Stones from Everton in a record Premier League deal for a defender. The following summer, the club broke this record twice more with the signings of full-back pair Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, with Brazilian utility player Danilo also bought from Real Madrid. These four defenders combined cost just shy of £180m, but a side with serious aspirations of sustained domestic dominance and aspiration of European titles needed more.
It represents a level of spending unparalleled in the sport for positions generally regarded as more affordable than players in attacking areas. However, due to City’s wealth, it is the natural process for a club intent on finding success and elevating themselves above more traditionally successful clubs. This context is vital with regards for their deal for Laporte – who’s market value is not £57m, yet who City see as invaluable. But why him?
Since the summer, an entourage from the English club have been in frequent contact with Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti – who has grown into one of Europe’s most impressive defenders since his move from Olympique Lyonnais. The Cameroonian-born French international was targeted not only due to his undoubted quality but his experience in an elite league, his age (24) and the fact he is left-footed – and thus adds balance to a team who opt to build from passing out of defence.
However, despite the Frenchman holding a £53m release clause at the Camp Nou, he had no intention of leaving and so attention switched to secondary targets. Jonny Evans of West Brom and Real Sociedad defender Inigo Martinez were considered but were ultimately discounted due to their age profile and doubts over their ability to adapt their game to Guardiola’s highly-demanding style of play and training.
Reservations over Laporte were primarily his high release clause (£57m with a further £5m in fees as he had progressed through Athletic’s academy) and also as he had previously turned down the chance to join City, with a preference for extending his contract at San Mames. There have also been concerns his form has stagnated in the past 18 months after an injury layoff, due to ankle fracture, in the first half of 2016.
Athletic will demand his full release clause yet the Basque club may not be derailed by his transfer due to the emergence of promising central defender Unai Nunez and Yeray Alvarez – who has fought back twice from cancer and is close to a first-team return. Laporte has been close to ever-present for the club across the past five years and has been a rock in defence, but it is not inconceivable his departure will not hold a significantly negative impact.
For City, he ticks all the boxes of their specific skillset and fits the trend of their transfer policy over the past two years. Concerns over a tailing off in form may be allayed by Guardiola’s reputation for improving players and previous concerns the player may have been ‘too comfortable’ by remaining at Athletic and refusing moves away – including to City and Barcelona – are now no longer an issue.
The Citizens must be aware they are overpaying but ultimately this should be a deal which, in context, makes sense for all parties.