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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Manchester City target Aymeric Laporte can tick every box for Pep Guardiola

The Athletic Bilbao defender is expected to complete a move to join the Premier League leaders before the closure of the transfer window.

Manchester City are hoping to complete a deal for Athletic Bilbao's French defender Aymeric Laporte before the end of the transfer window. Vincent West / Reuters
Manchester City are hoping to complete a deal for Athletic Bilbao's French defender Aymeric Laporte before the end of the transfer window. Vincent West / Reuters

The definition was more constructive than destructive. Aymeric Laporte did not just recognise change; he reflected it. He plays in a position noted for stoppers. He identified himself as a starter, someone who does not just end attacks but begins them.

It was an explanation, long before Manchester City revived their interest in him, of why Pep Guardiola wanted him and looks set to complete a deal for him before the closure of the transfer window on January 31.

“My position’s most important evolution has been in the sense of being more than a defender,” the 23-year-old told FourFourTwo magazine. “A big part of my game is to bring the ball out from the back. Defenders do this more than ever before. It’s all about arriving at perfection.”

No doubt a perfectionist would agree. It is why, though there is footage of Laporte’s ability to execute clean, well-timed, last-ditch challenges, that in itself does not account for why Manchester City have activated his release clause.

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Nor, though it also helps, does his 1.92m height: it should help a short City team who often find themselves marking taller opponents at set-pieces. It is not enough to simply say that City required another centre-back, though they do, with Vincent Kompany remaining injury-prone.

They are getting one with a proactive attitude: in the same interview, Laporte described a sliding tackle as a “last resort”. While Guardiola was mocked in England for saying 13 months ago that he did not coach tackles, he meant that positional sense and reading of the game can render them unnecessary.

In Laporte, he will get a player who is positive in possession. He is as comfortable on the ball as his fellow Frenchman Eliaquim Mangala is uncomfortable.

At Athletic Bilbao, Laporte has played more long passes in than any other player in the Primera Liga, 124; an accuracy rate of 62 per cent is high. It is no coincidence, Leonardo Bonucci, another defender Guardiola admires, also has a fine passing range.

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It is notable, too, that while Guardiola favours a short passing game, he also has a goalkeeper, in Ederson, who is an excellent long passer. It is a way to beat the press.

Laporte’s pass completion rate over shorter distances this season is 89 per cent; impressive, but some way short of John Stones’. If will probably improve under Guardiola, it should help that he has been schooled by fellow progressives.

Ernesto Valverde shares certain principles with the City manager; it is a reason why Barcelona appointed him. Reportedly, it was only a fondness for his former club that stopped Valverde from trying to take Laporte to the Nou Camp.

“He is already the real deal… mature, despite his youth and he takes responsibility for his position,” said Valverde in 2015. He managed Laporte for four years.

Marcelo Bielsa, the man Guardiola has called “the best coach in the world,” gave Laporte his Bilbao debut. Perhaps that upbringing will mean he takes less time to acclimatise to the Catalan’s methods.

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Hence, perhaps, a return to a target who eluded City 18 months ago. It is a rare example of Guardiola renewing interest in a player who has rejected him. But, as the £75 million (Dh387.9m) fee Liverpool paid for Virgil van Dijk indicates, high-class ball-playing centre-backs are rare – and left-footers still rarer - and, as most are already owned by the superclubs, command a premium price. Laporte, unlike the 30-year-old Jonny Evans, is a futuristic choice by City.

He will not be coming cheap, with no transfer fee yet confirmed, but a willingness to authorise similar fees for Stones, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy illustrates the importance of footballing defenders and the scarcity of those who meet Guardiola’s demands.

In his education, his age, his attitude and his technical talent, Laporte is one of the few who seems to tick every box.