Going into the January transfer window, Manchester City were in an unprecedented position. Literally no club in football history has ever been that rich, both in absolute terms and relative to their competitors. People had been expecting moves for the very best – and one such move, for Kaká – almost came off. But when the window closed, City were left with just four new players, with not a World Cup medal or a Ballon d’Or between them.
City were mocked for this, of course. The same hacks who said we had aimed too high in the case of Kaká sneered at our signing Craig Bellamy. Just like those who said it was obscene to over-pay for Nigel de Jong but then to under-bid for Shay Given, or even to enquire for Wilson Palacios.
But the four new additions: Shay Given, Wayne Bridge, Nigel de Jong and Craig Bellamy represent a real strengthening to the side, regardless of their fees. Starting from the back, Given has already won us three points and has only played one game: we may have been the better team against Middlesbrough, but Afonso Alves still managed to find himself four great chances. As promising as he is, I would not have backed Joe Hart in any of those situations.
Wayne Bridge is yet to fully settle in at City: he has been responsible for conceding two goals in the last three games. But anyone who witnessed the naïveté
of Javi Garrido, or the one-paced Football League essence of Michael Ball will know that Bridge is a big improvement.
The defence, strengthened by Given and Bridge, has a fantastic new shield in Nigel de Jong. £18million may be inflated, but since when did first choice central midfielders for Hamburg and the Netherlands come cheap? Talk of waiting for his £2.3million clause in the summer misses the point: every club in Europe would have been in for him then, with a move to one of the elite a certainty. Why should cash rich City take a risk on that? de Jong provides energy and efficiency in midfield in a way that Didi Hamann no longer can. Yes, he’s no Xabi Alonso – he barely even crosses the half way line – but anyone who takes intelligence and competency as a given in central midfielders has never seen Elano and Gelson Fernandes play together.
And then Craig Bellamy – because Micah Richards, Robinho, Martin Petrov and Steven Ireland didn’t leave us with enough characters in the dressing room before. Regardless of his personal conduct, he’s a very good centre forward for a mid-table Premier League club. Quick, clever, technical, and – and this is important – at ease with his own game and with the Premier League – he gives City bite and pace up front in a way we haven’t had since Nicolas Anelka. Since he left we’ve gone through Robbie Fowler, Bradley Wright-Phillips, Andy Cole, Darius Vassell, Bernardo Corradi, the second coming of Paul Dickov, Georgios Samaras, Emile Mpenza, Rolando Bianchi, Benjani and, the coup de grâce, Jô.
So rather than attempt to play Football Manager with the cheats on, Mark Hughes has added much needed experience and quality to the City squad. Four players – all with at least thirty international caps, aged between 24 and 32, all with Champions’ League experience, and a reputation for fitness and consistency – who have given City a backbone long missing. In January we ground out three consecutive home wins: thank God we didn’t take a gamble onJoão Moutinho or Bojan Krkic.