Following the end of Manchester City’s 2019/20 campaign, former City captain Richard Dunne spoke exclusively with Compare.bet. The former Ireland international, who also played for Everton and Aston Villa, spoke about the club’s shortcomings in the Champions League, the need for more experience in Pep Guardiola’s squad and named City as the ideal landing spot for Lionel Messi. Dunne also named Kalidou Koulibaly, David Alaba and Dayot Upamecano as potential targets for City as they prepare for a title charge in the 2020/21 Premier League season.
- On Messi at Man City: “Messi should look elsewhere for guaranteed silverware, no guarantees in the Premier League”
- On City’s centre-back needs: “They want players like that [Upamecano] who can play the ball out.”
- “I am not sure he [Aké] will be first-choice”
- On Alaba: “He’s probably someone that could come in and play a defensive midfield role for them [City]”
- “It wouldn’t surprise me if he [Grealish] stayed at Aston Villa for another season”
- “His [Foden] next progression is to be like De Bruyne”
DB: Man City came up short again in the Champions League and were also way off runaway Premier League winners Liverpool, but there’s little talk of Pep being under pressure. European rivals have dismissed managers for coming up short in the Champions League despite their domestic success, and back in 2015, Mancini was sacked just a year after winning PL with City. Do you think he has a larger margin for error than most top managers?
RD: I think Pep came into the club on the basis that he was there to build a project. When you look at how his tenure has gone, he’s got over a 70% win rate with Man City and won 8 competitions. Ok last season wasn’t great for them, and they want that Champions League, but I’d say he’s earned it especially when you look at what he’s done in his career and his time at City. When I look at him and other managers that are around, who do you replace him with? There’s nobody better than him in my opinion. Liverpool fans will say Jurgen Klopp, but over the longevity of Pep’s career he’s won the most trophies, won the most games, and the Champions League is a hard trophy to win and surprises can happen. I don’t think they played particularly badly against Lyon but not winning is of course disappointing. They’re not a million miles away from winning the Champions League, it’s just certain games where they haven’t performed but over the season they’ve done well. If Pep is getting a bit of leeway he deserves it more than most.
DB: Since Pep joined City, the club has spent £700m on players, the third-highest total in Europe. City have had the highest net spend in Europe in this period. A lot of this outlay was adding to an already expensive squad. Considering the riches at his disposal, how do you assess his time with City?
RD: It’s been a big success. The style of football that he’s brought to the club has been amazing for everyone to watch, fans of other clubs enjoy watching City because of who they are. But that’s not enough. You need to win trophies and he’s backed it up, winning 8 trophies in the four years he’s been there. He’s broken all the records in the Premier League and done everything. Yes, he will be judged for spending an awful lot of money but transfer fees have gone up and being Man City you probably have to pay a bit more than the normal fee. I’m sure there are still areas in the squad he’d like to strengthen and spend some more money. Spending money doesn’t guarantee winning the Champions League or Premier League. We’ve all watched the Premier League and it’s the hardest league in the world and we criticise him for finishing second. They’ve done amazing, City. I know they’ve spent a lot of money and they’ve needed to, to go from where they were when I was at the club to where they are now. It costs money and so does trying to bring in the best players in the world which is what they’re looking for. It’s difficult to find and choose players who are better than what they’ve already got due to the strength of their squad. If I was to suggest one thing it’d be looking at a couple of more experienced players, players who have won championships and Champions Leagues rather than players with massive potential who are going to grow. It might be good to have one or two players in that group who have won a Champions League, who could organise the team on the pitch during sticky moments.
DB: Kevin de Bruyne has said ‘different year, same stuff’ when it comes to City’s Champions League efforts. This is their third consecutive season falling at the quarter-final hurdle. What do you think the problem has been in this competition and how can City bounce back from a disappointing season?
RD: I watched Lyon in the semi-finals, and before Bayern scored they could’ve scored two or three goals. They’re a decent young side and the way that Pep set up to play against them was with three defenders, and seeing them last night against two they created a few chances, so from Pep’s point of view that was the right way to go. But for the rest of us who watch City play every week, we’re used to seeing them go and attack teams and use the exciting front players that they have. Over the course of the last three to four years in the Champions League they’ve almost strolled through the group stages it’s been really comfortable for them. Then they reach the knockout stage and come up against teams that are tactically better than who they’ve faced in the groups, teams whose sole focus in a season is the Champions League rather than domestic success, and they’ve found it tough and just fallen short. It may be the lack of experience of players who have won Champions Leagues. City have amazing players with amazing experience and levels of success in other areas, but it seems to win the Champions League you need that little bit more. For all the great things that City have, that may be the thing that’s just lacking, the knowhow in European competitions and that’s why if they do get the opportunity to sign a superstar who has won the Champions League it’ll be the right step for them. De Bruyne has been amazing this season and he will understandably be disappointed and frustrated they’ve not got past the quarter-finals. Next year he’ll be a candidate for club captain and be the one who drives them forward and look to take on that bit more responsibility to go on and push them to at least a Champions League semi or final.
DB: De Bruyne had a stellar campaign, being named Player of the Year. Would he have got your vote over the likes of Sadio Mane and Jordan Henderson? Given their shortcomings in the Champions League, do you think he needs to leave the club to achieve European success during the peak of his career?
RD: I think he’s justified his Player of the Year award with his performances this year. He’s been outstanding. You could say Mane was in with a chance as well because he’s won the Premier League and has been a super player for Liverpool this season. But from a fan’s point of view, when they see KDB play, every game he plays in he’s outstanding. He’ll do something brilliant, he’ll create chances, score goals and he’s become the best centre midfielder in the world. Certainly in the style of play that he does. For him to go on and move to win the Champions League somewhere else, there’s no guarantees in that competition. You had a few years where Ronaldo and Real Madrid were wiping the floor with people and winning it, but in general, there are new winners all the time. I don’t see why he can’t win it at Man City. They’ve fallen short in the last couple of years, but you’ll look at the start of next season’s competition and the bookies, everybody will probably make Man City one of the favourites, so why would he want to leave? For me, he’s the one that can drive them forward next season. Seeing how much he was hurt by the defeat to Lyon, it’s not something that’s a good thing at the time, but something he’ll keep with him and use to drive him forward and provide that extra edge next season to make sure they do go forward and they do have a greater chance of winning it.
DB: The club has announced there’ll be a statue erected to commemorate club legend David Silva who is leaving the club after a decade in Manchester. It’s no surprise, given the success he’s enjoyed at the club. Do you think any other players from the last decade deserve a statue at the Etihad too?
RD: It’s a huge honour to get that, you know, it’s something that’s not given to everybody. I can understand it with David Silva because he’s been there for every trophy that City have won over the last ten years — he’s been the one that’s been a part of it all. And I also think his style of play is what City wants to promote, in the way they want to be recognised as a team of players that can play football like David Silva, that can create chances, excite fans and be superstars but in a humble way. He deserves what he gets. I think, in terms of other players, you can look at Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, people who have made an impact on the club, who have driven the club forward. There was a period where Yaya Touré was behind everything for the club, he was the player of the season, he was the one driving them forward, and certainly, Vincent was there for a very long time. When you hear people and you speak to people about him, it’s about how he bonded it all together. For everybody who came into the club, he was the first to bring them in and make sure everybody was comfortable. Those are two other players you could suggest might have it as well, but it’s not a thing that you can just go and say, ‘All right, well you’ve won the league and you’ve played well, here’s a statue.’ Players need to really merit it, and I think in David Silva you’ve got someone who epitomises what the club wants to be about. He’s got style, he’s got class, he’s a great footballer, and he’s someone that young players can look up to, see that statue, and he’ll give them something to aim for.
DB: Silva’s departure means the club loses another club captain, following Vincent Kompany last season. What impact do you believe Kompany’s departure contributed to Man City failing short in 2019/20.
RD: I think it was certainly a factor. We had seen it when Vincent was there, and he wasn’t playing games because he was injured or whatever, that they would miss him. They tried to replace him, but it’s not always about just replacing a player, it’s about replacing characters. Certainly, with him, he has the leadership qualities which probably aren’t in abundance throughout the squad. You want people like that. And when you’ve not got that leader on the field, it does make an impact. That’s why I’m suggesting if they do go into the transfer market that they look at somebody with more experience. Generally, when they sign players, they sign them at the age of 24 or 25, but maybe they could look at an older player, somebody who’s been around, who’s played a lot of games, who’s done a lot of different things. He doesn’t have to be the best player in the world, but he can organise a defence, organise the team because I think one of the problems that City have had is the transition from attack into defence. Because they’re so attack-minded, they spend so much time on the ball going forward. When they lose it, they’re looking for the next pass forward instead of concentrating maybe, for just two minutes, on getting the ball back and making themselves hard to beat again. Sometimes that quick transition is difficult for them.
DB: With Fernandinho in the twilight of his career, we’re looking at a City squad without many remnants from their early success. Which players currently at the club do you see leadership qualities in?
RD: It’s very difficult to know what goes on on the training field, the players who lead the groups, who the characters are amongst them. You look at, normally, a centre-back, and Laporte has done really well since he’s come into the club. He looks like a leader — he looks like someone who plays a lot of games, someone who’s driven to succeed, driven to win. They choose their captains differently, really, at City. They choose the player who’s been there the longest. They have a lot of really good players, and they look like a really good group, but who’s that leader amongst them? I don’t know at the moment, but I think certainly De Bruyne, for next season, is someone who could lead the team and push them forward. It’s not always about being nice to your teammates and being friends, or best mates. Sometimes, as a captain, you have to tell them, you have to push them forward, you have to demand more. I see that in De Bruyne. He wants to be the best, he wants to get better all the time, he wants to win for the club, so he’ll demand it from the others. It’s also about the younger players, people like Raheem Sterling who’s done wonderful things on and off the pitch. He’s a player who wants to get better, and we’ve seen that in his progress over the last few years. He’s certainly got the potential to be a leader as well.
DB: We’ve seen David Silva slowly playing more of a bit-part role in recent times. The likes of Bernardo, Gundogan and Rodri have been rotated in the team. After some promising showings, do you think Phil Foden can establish a regular place in the starting XI?
RD: I think he will. For a couple of years now we’ve seen with Foden that he’s a player with massive potential who’s going to be great for the future, but since the restart this season I think he’s been outstanding. He’s played in some really big games. He played against Real Madrid and was outstanding, again. He’s a player that I think, next season, won’t be someone that you’ll look at for the future, he’s someone who’s ready now, and he’ll be part of that midfield. It doesn’t mean he’ll play every game, because the manager does rotate. It seems like, at the moment, De Bruyne is the number one name on the sheet, but players are rotated and I think Phil will be a part of that. He’s progressed from that prospect into a first-team player, and then his next progression is to be like De Bruyne, someone that the manager has to have in the team every week. From what we’ve seen of him so far, it looks like he certainly has the capabilities to demand a place in the team.
DB: There has been uncertainty about the future of Eric Garcia, whilst centre-back has been seen as a problem position for the club. City have signed Nathan Ake, a left-footed centre-back. With Laporte also being a left-footer, what do you think Ake’s role will be in this squad and what are your thoughts on Eric Garcia.
I think Ake will play. City sometimes play with three at the back so he fits in that system. I think they’ve had problems at left-back, what with Mendy and his injury record so he can fill in there. He’s someone with the same standards and style of previous centre-halves at City when he wants to play with the ball and drive out from the back with the ball. I am not sure he will be first-choice, but at the same time he’ll get games and I think it gives them another option to be able to play with Laporte in the centre and him on the left of the three. City are playing 50-60 games a season so they need some cover, so having a left-footed cover really strengthens the squad. I think with Garcia, he’s had a great breakthrough this year, he’s played a lot of games, he’s another one who’s come in and tried to cement that role and become the number one partner for Laporte. But unfortunately, he seems to have had his head turned by another club, Barcelona, so he’s not going to sign a contract and maybe wants to move on. Then again, maybe he’s seen the Bayern Munich match and may wonder what the best move would be. He’s a good player, he’s developed really well at Man City and he’s got a great future at Man City, but unfortunately for them and sadly for him, it seems he wants to move on from the club and that’s a real shame. That said, you have to respect what the player wants and if his heart is somewhere else then it’s the right thing to do.
DB: Pep seemingly prefers defenders that are comfortable playing out from the back. Ake arguably fits this role, but do you think this requirement has hindered City’s recruitment of defenders under Pep?
RD: Possibly yeah. I think there are different styles of defenders, you’ve got old school defenders who will defend first and foremost, and then you’ve got the style of defender who plays football, who is part of build-up play and is almost like a deep-lying playmaker where they want to play out from the back and pass the ball through the lines into the midfielders. It’s hard because you want to have a bit of both, you need to have a bit of both, City have for the last four years have produced a style of football which not many people have seen and it’s because they have players like that at the back, they have goalkeepers who can pass the ball out. It’s hard and I don’t think it’s something that the manager would want to compromise on, he has a style of play which he believes in and which we’ve seen over the last 10-12 years and it does work, it does dominate games and more often than not results and victories and trophies have come. So it’s a difficult compromise to get and I think now you’re sort of looking out for someone like Van Djik who can do both, who can play the ball out, who can win headers, who can win great tackles, who organises his defence. But there’s one Van Djik and there are not many players in the world like him so it’s trying to unearth the next one. I think maybe from what we’ve seen from Upamecano in recent weeks in the Champions League, he looks like a player who can defend who likes, who likes tackling, who likes winning headers, but who also drives out from the back with the ball so he might be a contender for someone they might look at in the future. But I don’t see him straying massively from what his principles are and I think the centre-halves he does buy, players like John Stones, Otamendi and possibly in the future Upamecano, they want players like that who can play the ball out.
DB: We’ve seen many clubs adopt playing out from the back all across Europe. While it’s a great way to retain possession, it can also go calamitously wrong. We’ve seen it undo Barcelona and Leipzig in the knockout stages of the Champions League – as a defender who’s played Premier League football before this was widely seen, what do you think of the tactic?
RD: I understand it, and the necessity to keep the ball. When I played in games, sometimes you’d feel like you couldn’t get out of your own half, because you’d get the ball and you’d clear it, but before you know it, it’s coming straight back at you again. There was no structure to the game then. Now when you see the games, you can see the tactical battles between the coaches and between the players. As a defender, if you can keep the ball for a minute or two, pass the ball around the back, back to your goalkeeper, or move the ball into the midfield, it gives you that little bit of breathing space to be able to relax. It also gives you the opportunity as a team to move forward together and distort the opposition’s formation. It’s all about the build-up, movement off the ball – to do that, you need centre backs who are comfortable on the ball, even more than that you need goalkeepers who can do that. But not everyone can do that – as a manager, you have to understand that this is a style of football you want to play, but if you have a centre back who isn’t capable of doing it or a goalkeeper who isn’t capable, you have to adjust. Sometimes it’s a case, as we’ve seen this week of play at all costs, where it can see you knocked out of European competition or the Semi-Final. You need to play without risk, you want your players to play balls which they’re sure that find their teammates, but if there’s any doubt, you have to play it safe. You’ve got to make good decisions – you see Van Dijk do it, he clears the ball if he has to, he controls the ball and drives out of defence when he has time to. It’s about getting that balance correct. First and foremost you’re a defender and you’re in the team to keep clean sheets. That [balance] is what most clubs are looking for in their centre back.
DB: Another club that has fallen short in Europe is Pep’s former side Barcelona. With Lionel Messi handing in a transfer request. He’s reportedly determined to leave the club – where do you think is an ideal landing spot for Messi to give him the best shot at winning silverware in the twilight of his career?
RD: I think if you’re looking for guaranteed silverware you’d have to look at PSG. They’ve been very dominant in France and will, of course, be favourites to win the league again this year. If you’re looking for a challenge and trying to win the Champions League, it’s very difficult for any club to win it as there are no guarantees in Europe. He’s got a history with Pep and I’m sure City will be interested in signing him. The way those two worked together at Barcelona would be enough incentive for any club to make it happen again. He’s been dominant, and coming to City he’d give them that extra edge needed in Europe, someone with that experience who is a multiple Ballon d’Or winner. He’d be a great signing for City, but obviously the Premier League at 33 is a difficult place, so I think for the player himself, it’s a huge decision that will be determined by not just who can afford him but also what he needs at this stage of his career. If he wants to continue with a challenge, then certainly that’s the Premier League. If he wants guaranteed silverware then he may look somewhere else as there are no guarantees in the Premier League.
DB: Looking at City’s current front line, Gabriel Jesus has just enjoyed his best scoring season for City, but it seems as long as Aguero is fit, Jesus will be second fiddle. With momentum and regular playing time being so important for strikers, do you anticipate Jesus looking for a move to a club where he’s guaranteed to start week in week out?
RD: I don’t think so, he seems really happy at Man City. Every time he plays, you can see the amount of effort and hard work he puts in. I’m not sure statistically, but he looks like he’s outrunning everyone else. He’s charging down and pressing the whole defensive line.
He’s getting opportunities and scoring 20 goals a season almost. He will look at Aguero and think ‘this is one of the best three centre-forwards in the whole world’, so, how does he get in front of him? He has to understand that this is the way it is, his time will come. City have massive respect for him and lots of time for him. I think he’ll get more opportunities probably next season because Aguero is getting older, he’s had a couple of injuries. He will always get game time. I don’t see him thinking that he has to move to fulfil his desire for goals and game time in a season – I think he can get that at Man City and I think they’d be reluctant to let him go, he’s a striker that is still very young and offers Man City something different to Aguero in terms of the work rate he puts in, he’s not all about goals – he can play deeper or wider. It would surprise me if City are even contemplating letting him go.
DB: Your former club Aston Villa left it late but managed to pull off the great escape. Their captain Jack Grealish played a huge part in that. His performances have attracted the interest of many top clubs. Do you expect to see him start the next season in a Villa kit and if not, where do you believe he may end up?
RD: I think it’s a really difficult one. For a few years now, he’s been targeted by some bigger clubs who have seen him as an important part of their future. He’s been outstanding for Villa. When you talk about leaders and players who can drag a team forward, he’s done that at Villa, he’s dragged them out of the Championship and he’s dragged them out of the bottom three this season. Of course, he’ll have admirers, but at the price tag that’s been quoted —£70-80 million— as well as the financial situation some clubs are in and what they need in their squad, I don’t know whether Man United would go for him this year and I don’t know whether Tottenham can afford him. It wouldn’t surprise me if he stayed at Aston Villa for another season. I think he’s certainly got the capabilities to play for Manchester United, or another club bigger than Villa, I just don’t know if this summer will be the right time because of how strange the situation is in the whole world and financially in the League – Manchester United are looking at wide players and maybe centre backs, so it’s tough. I wouldn’t be surprised if he started this season at Aston Villa.
DB: You mentioned a few times so far that City need some experience to push on, is there anyone in particular that comes to mind that could make that difference?
RD: It’s really hard, for all the top clubs around, when you’re looking for players who are the best in the world in their position. City have been brilliant in finding players who will get better and will progress and will become the best in the world. Maybe if they could go out and sign someone who’s already in that bracket of ‘best centre-half in the world’, ‘the best midfielder’. You’d say the best centre-half in the world is Van Dijk and they’re not going to be able to get him from Liverpool, it’s almost impossible. So maybe they start looking down – is Koulibaly the next best in the world? I don’t know, but he seems to have those leadership qualities that they would look for. David Alaba has been spoken about and Pep’s worked with him before. He’s probably someone that could come in and play a defensive midfield role for them. He’s just won the Champions League, he’s won loads with Bayern Munich, he’s an experienced player. It’s very difficult, that’s why it’s such a big task trying to get recruitment right for a club like Man City. It’s great having lots of money, but it’s about finding individual players who have the quality to actually improve what they’ve got. If you look at the style of football they play, people have criticised John Stones and Otamendi, but that’s the way Pep wants to play and they’re the players who can do it – they’re very good defenders. Yes they make the odd mistake here and there, but a lot of clubs would like those sort of players. So you’ve got to go out and find someone better than them, and it’s very difficult, certainly in the Premier League, where everyone is reluctant to let their players go. It’s a tough summer for everybody, I don’t know where the players will come from or who they’re looking at, but how do you improve a squad as good as what they’ve got?