How Manchester City’s pursuit of Marc Cucurella fell short

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The final decision came on Monday evening: after months of work to make Marc Cucurella a Manchester City player, that plan is now all but over.

Brighton were holding out for at least £50million ($61m), but City and the player’s camp always thought a compromise would be reached. The reality dawned on them at the end of last week, and when Chelsea made it clear they would pay the asking price, City realized a spanner was in the works.

They were determined not to go above £40million and regardless of the threat of Cucurella going to Stamford Bridge, or even of going into the season with only two senior full-backs, there will be no higher offer.

Txiki Begiristain made that clear on Monday evening, so unless City change their mind, or Brighton now accept the £40million offer and Chelsea’s serious interest goes away, the Premier League champions will have to find another left-back with around a month of the transfer window remaining.

They have held talks with Anderlecht over 21-year-old Sergio Gomez, who they have scouted extensively, but The Athletic understands he is regarded as a prospect for the future and their search for a first-team alternative will continue.

So how did it get to this? After signing their other top targets and banking more than £210 million from sales this year, the final piece of the puzzle has gone missing.

It is a late setback and City, not least Pep Guardiola, are desperate for a left-back. Just like 12 months ago, when Harry Kane could not be prized from Tottenham Hotspur, Guardiola is more than concerned about the balance of his squad. Unlike 12 months ago, alternatives may be easier to come by.

Sources close to Cucurella, and influential ones at City, believed a deal would be feasible until the end of last week.

The 24-year-old had been desperate to work with Guardiola and did not entertain Brighton’s offer of a new contract. Any doubts about his intentions were dispelled when he handed in a transfer request, a severe move that few players resort to.

City, for their part, did not feel particularly unnerved by their negotiating position, awkward though they thought it was. Despite the £50 million asking price becoming common knowledge and the comparisons to Ben White, who joined Arsenal for that sum last summer, Brighton never communicated a specific figure to City during talks and did not fully engage in open dialogue.

That perplexed senior figures, such as sporting director Begiristain, and in hindsight, it may have been an early indicator that things would soon stall, but that did not seem to be reflected within City at the time.

That all of this has happened now, so close to the start of the season, reflects the delicate nature of the transfer window. Cucurella had been identified as the top, and only, target for the left-back role months ago, with Guardiola particularly keen.

cucurella-brighton

Cucurella was said to be desperate to work with Guardiola (Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

But formal inquiries were pushed back later and later because of other dealings, expected and otherwise. Cucurella and his camp were told to be patient and were happy to be so.

In early June, City could not make a formal offer for Cucurella as they had to sell players before buying new ones. They were expecting Gabriel Jesus’ departure to come soonest, and it did.

City signed Kalvin Philips, with Leeds more willing sellers than Brighton. Then Chelsea came into the frame for Raheem Sterling and, suddenly, the possibility of Nathan Ake also moving to Stamford Bridge emerged.

Chelsea had been expecting to close the deals for Sterling and Ake at the same time, which would have given City the money for Cucurella, but would also have made signing a centre-back a higher priority.

At that point, Oleksandr Zinchenko was still with the squad as Arsenal had not made a formal approach.

City took decisive action to keep Ake and Arsenal ramped up their efforts on Zinchenko after missing out on Lisandro Martinez.

Finally, things were lining up to make the push for Cucurella, and on the days surrounding Zinchenko’s move to Arsenal on July 22, there was no sense at City that they had anything to worry about regarding a replacement at left-back.

A bid of around £30million for Cucurella — essentially the full sum that City received for Zinchenko — may have done more harm than good considering Brighton’s firm stance, but the message from the Premier League champions to Cucurella was that it was very much an opening bid .

He was told to sit tight and that City would be back with a bigger offer to get the deal done.

A bid of £35 million was then rejected, and on Friday morning, a proposal worth £40 million went the same way.

During negotiations a few weeks ago, Brighton pointed to the fees paid for Kyle Walker (£50million plus £4million in add-ons) and Joao Cancelo (£60million, although offset by Danilo moving to Juventus), although it was contested that both of those players had far more Premier League and/or Champions League experience, while Walker boosts the homegrown quota.

Brighton were told that a £40million move would make Cucurella the fourth most expensive left-back of all time, and therefore would represent a fine piece of business, especially for somebody who only signed 12 months ago for around £15million, but they insisted they also saw him as a centre-back, and that there are lots of expensive centre-backs.

They said that they had not even been looking for a replacement, despite having been informed of City’s interest at the end of last summer.

That caused consternation in the Cucurella camp, not least because they felt they had an agreement with Brighton for offers from top clubs to be entertained.

For much of the summer, City and Cucurella worked on the basis that Brighton would honor the supposed agreement, albeit after a lot of work to close the deal. For most of the summer, City and the player’s side felt a compromise would be reached with Brighton, but in reality, they were never prepared to drop their valuation.

In that sense, there are more echoes of Kane’s failed move to the Etihad Stadium last summer, when City were given constant assurances that the player would be allowed to leave, but never was.

When City could not find a breakthrough with the £40 million proposal on Friday, things started to go cold. Brighton broke off talks, which did not close the possibility of a transfer but signaled to City that the next time they picked up the phone, they had better be offering £50 million.

It was at this point that news started leaking out of the City that while they were not out of the race, they were ready to look at other targets. The club often strike a defiant public tone when a transfer does not go their way, but what is certain is that the club’s most senior figures rarely go over their valuation of a target.

They wanted to sign a centre-back in the summer of 2019, when Vincent Kompany left, but despite choosing Harry Maguire as their first choice, they were not prepared to pay what Leicester City wanted.

They missed out on Jorginho the year before while haggling over less than £5 million, half of the difference between their valuation of Cucurella and Brighton’s. The longer the Jorginho saga went on, the more the door opened for Chelsea to sign him.

City pulled out of a deal for Alexis Sanchez once he agreed a deal with Manchester United and were asked to match it. Kane’s value was disputed, although there were bigger issues there.

The bottom line is that it has been a long time since City were rushed into paying more than they wanted to, no matter how desperately they wanted a player, or to fill a position.

They spent heavily in the early days of the Abu Dhabi era, but have generally tried to keep their transfer fees under the radar as a sign that they will not pay over the odds just because everybody knows how wealthy they are.

Arsenal, Mikel Arteta, Zinchenko

Zinchenko’s move to Arsenal has left City short at full-back (Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Last summer’s £100 million move for Jack Grealish was a major departure from that, but there have been countless examples in recent years of how they will not be forced into going above their valuation. Cucurella himself is proof of that: in a year when City have made roughly £100 million profit on transfers, they would not cough up an extra £10 million for a player they really wanted.

Man City transfers in 2022

Players in Fees spent Players out Fees received

Julian Alvarez

£15m

Ferran Torres

£47m

Erling Haaland

£51m

Raheem Sterling

£47.5

Calvin Phillips

£42m

Gabriel Jesus

£45m

Stefan Ortega

Free

Oleksandr Zinchenko

£35m

Gavin Bazunu

£15m

Romeo Lavia

£10.5m

Pedro Porro

£7.2m

Where is Itakura?

£4.1m

CJ Egan-Riley

£400k

Total

£108m

Total

£211.7m

And they did not move for anyone else after deals to sign Maguire, Jorginho or Kane fell through, showing how determined they are to not just find the right man, but at the right price.

Incidentally, those decisions have worked out well, with Ruben Dias, Rodri and Erling Haaland arriving instead, albeit 12 months later.

On rare occasions, City will make sure they strengthen a certain position even if they cannot get their first choice.

Two years ago — a year on from missing out on Maguire — they were determined to sign a centre-back. A summer that started with a move to sign Kalidou Koulibaly took a detour to Jules Kounde and then Dias. It is remarkable how many of these players end up at Chelsea.

They are in a similar position with left-backs now and would have been with center-backs had Ake left. While they never intended to replace Sterling and Jesus with another forward, they felt it would have been imperative to replace Ake.

That is because the idea of ​​going into a season with six defenders is not part of the plan: before Zinchenko’s exit, they would have had three centre-backs and three full-backs had Ake departed. City believed it would be difficult to replace Ake and with Chelsea dithering, they set the Londoners a hard deadline, insisting that if no deal was struck by July 15, he would not be allowed to leave.

That may seem an uncharacteristically harsh stance for a club happy to sell popular players to domestic rivals, but Ake is happy enough at City and was not desperate to leave, even if the opportunity to play more at Stamford Bridge was appealing.

As it stands, City have six defenders: four centre-backs and two full-backs, an alarming lack of depth in the wide areas.

“We are in negotiations,” Guardiola said of Cucurella in July, before things turned sour. “If it doesn’t happen, we have alternatives… Cancelo, Josh Wilson-Esbrand is a young talent, Ake can play there.”

That will be the stance again now, showing that while Guardiola may sometimes have different thoughts about the club’s transfer dealings behind closed doors, he has always put a brave face on it publicly and generally found a way to adapt.

So, over the next month, the City will scour the market for alternatives to Cucurella. Dias’ success shows that second or even third choices are far from last resorts, but the task before the transfer window closes on September 1 is to find somebody with Cucurella’s skill set playing for a club who are willing to sell just as the season is starting , and for a price that City are happy to pay.

It should be an easier task than finding alternatives to Kane, who was seen as the only suitable candidate on the market at that point, but that does not mean it will be easy.

(Top photo: Eddie Keogh/Getty Images)

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