Manchester City’s dominance of English and European football has heralded a shift in the transfer policy of their major rivals. After watching Pep Guardiola’s team build their treble success on the foundation of a formidable midfield, everybody else is now trying to sign midfielders.
In the Premier League, seven of the 10 biggest transfers so far this summer have involved midfielders. It will be eight once Arsenal break the £100 million barrier for the first time by completing their move for West Ham captain Declan Rice in the coming days.
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Liverpool have signed two by recruiting Brighton & Hove Albion’s Alexis Mac Allister and RB Leipzig’s Hungary international Dominik Szoboszlai, while Manchester United have added Chelsea’s Mason Mount to their squad. Tottenham Hotspur have completed a deal for Leicester City’s James Maddison and Newcastle United have started to prepare for their first UEFA Champions League campaign in 20 years by completing a club-record £55m move for AC Milan playmaker Sandro Tonali.
It’s not just the Premier League where clubs are prioritising such specific recruitment. The biggest transfer anywhere this summer so far has been Real Madrid’s £88m move for Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham — a deal that could eventually be worth £114m with add-ons — which points to the Spanish club’s determination to dethrone City as European champions.
This time last year, the focus was on forwards. City completed the signing of Erling Haaland from Dortmund early in the summer window, but Arsenal (Gabriel Jesus), Liverpool (Darwin Nunez), Chelsea (Raheem Sterling), Manchester United (Antony), Spurs (Richarlison) and Newcastle (Alexander Isak) all invested heavily in attacking players.
But while Haaland’s 52 goals in all competitions justifiably claimed the spotlight, City’s success was rooted in their midfield. Anyone who witnessed City’s Premier League 4-1 destruction of closest challengers Arsenal in April will remember how Guardiola’s side won the game by overrunning the Gunners in the middle of the pitch. It was a similar story when Real Madrid were beaten 4-0 in the Champions League semifinal second leg at the Etihad three weeks later.
Guardiola had Rodri performing as the best defensive midfielder in Europe, Kevin De Bruyne as a peerless box-to-box player with the ability to score and create, and Ilkay Gundogan proving to be equally effective in either a defensive or advanced role. John Stones ended the season as another outstanding midfield option, and teenager Rico Lewis also performed well during the middle part of the campaign, while Guardiola also had Kalvin Phillips as a defensive midfielder, as well as the brilliance of Bernardo Silva in the attacking part of his midfield.
With such strength in the centre of the pitch, it is no surprise that City ended the season as treble winners.
All the great teams have relied on outstanding midfields — Man United’s 1999 treble winners, Arsenal’s 2004 “Invincibles,” Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea team, Guardiola’s Barcelona side of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets and the Real midfield axis of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro, and that is why the rest are now attempting to play catch-up by bolstering their midfield departments.
The departure of Gundogan to Barcelona will weaken City regardless of the qualities of his replacement, Mateo Kovacic, so perhaps pursuit of midfielders will make the Premier League title race closer next season.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp wanted to start his midfield rebuild 12 months ago, but the focus on forwards meant that he was able only to sign Juventus midfielder Arthur Melo on loan, and that move proved to be a failure due to the Brazilian’s injury record. (Arthur departed, having played just 76 minutes for the Reds’ first team all season.) But the addition of MacAllister and Szoboszlai, with wing-back Trent Alexander-Arnold also transitioning into a midfield role, means Liverpool have now addressed the need to reduce the age of their midfield.
James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita have all left, but the new faces, alongside the experienced heads of Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara, offer Liverpool a much more convincing set of options.
Arsenal will also be stronger with Rice adding his power and energy to their midfield. The blend of Rice and Martin Odegaard, with the experience of Jorginho and Thomas Partey, gives Arsenal the chance to ensure that they won’t be blown away in that department again by City this season.
Man United will look to add another midfielder to Mount, who will bring tenacity, goals and versatility to Erik ten Hag’s midfield; the England international has already made the team better simply by arriving from Stamford Bridge. And there is no doubt that Maddison and Tonali will raise standards at Spurs and Newcastle, respectively, in the months ahead.
Chelsea are the big question mark, having allowed Mount, Kovacic, N’Golo Kante and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to move on, but they already started planning ahead with the British record £106.8m signing of Enzo Fernandez in January, in addition to the earlier signings of Carney Chukwuemeka and Andrey Santos.
City are still the team to beat, but their rivals have identified where they all fell short against the champions and have moved to address those shortcomings.
Had City won the race to sign Bellingham, they would have become even stronger, but Real beat them to the England youngster and Arsenal overcame their interest in Rice, so there is hope for the chasing pack because, just as last season, the big trophies will be won by the team with the most consistent midfield.