England international's arrival from Tottenham Hotspur has helped address City's reliance on ageing full-backs, writes Richard Jolly.
In Kyle Walker, Pep Guardiola has the one-man right flank he craves for Manchester City
It had been one of the less eventful Manchester derbies and Pep Guardiola was seeking an explanation. Manchester City, he argued after April’s 0-0 draw, were not the vibrant force he wanted.
"We don't have full-backs to go up and down, up and down, because all of them are 33, 34 years old,” he said.
Actually only Bacary Sagna of City’s four full-time full-backs had turned 33 by then, but the Catalan had made his point. Enter Kyle Walker, at his physical and footballing prime, and equipped with the energy to get into the final third in the way Guardiola requires.
There has been a fixation on the fee City paid Tottenham Hotspur – an initial £45 million (Dh216.4m) – but other numbers certainly make for pleasing reading at the Etihad Stadium. Between them, the ageing quartet of Gael Clichy, Aleksandar Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta and Sagna mustered three assists in last season’s Premier League. Walker managed five himself, a total only three City players topped.
“If I can go and give something offensively that's going to be a positive for the team, it’s going to give us an extra edge,” Walker said.
And so, although his crossing has been criticised and while his entire Tottenham career produced a mere four goals, Walker’s running power promises to bring City another dimension. So, too, does the pace of the target Benjamin Mendy, who created five goals for Monaco in Ligue 1 and a further three in the Uefa Champions League; one, as City can testify, against them.
Guardiola’s positional game relies upon a precision of passing. Walker, who found a teammate on 79 per cent of occasions in both the Premier League and the Champions League, may not lend the technical excellence of Dani Alves, the man they thought they would sign, whose 87 per cent success rate in Europe was outstanding, but athleticism affords other options.
Guardiola has spoken to Bernardo Silva, his first summer signing, about operating on the right wing. The Portuguese’s natural inclination will be to come infield. That would create room for Walker to accelerate into.
And that is something he is primed to do. As a youngster, he trained every Thursday in his native Sheffield with a sprint coach. In the early part of last season, when Opta examined every Premier League player’s top speed, Walker ranked second in the division, going at 35.18kmph at his fastest. The now departed Jesus Navas was the only City player in the top 20.
Rather than tucking infield in the manner of Guardiola’s Bayern Munich full-backs, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba, who in effect became holding midfielders or, in old-fashioned parlance, wing-halves, Walker has the potential to prove a one-man right flank in the way Alves was for his all-conquering Barcelona.
He has prepared for his move to City by studying a different sort of predecessor. A few years ago, Zabaleta was the division’s outstanding attacking right-back, either surging outside David Silva to meet his passes and centre for the strikers or veering in on a late underlapping run. Aided by Guardiola’s coaching, the Argentine may leave a legacy.
“I watched Pablo Zabaleta countless times on YouTube and clips, because I think his timing of runs into the box is fantastic,” Walker said. “It's something I can get into my game with my pace.
"If I can time my runs as well I don’t think anyone can stop me. I'm all about assists, I'm not really greedy. I don't want to score, as long as I set people up and then they get the goals.”
Zabaleta’s unselfishness helped render him a City legend. There are worse role models.