Why Manchester City Broke Record For Aymeric Laporte

Why Manchester City Broke Record For Aymeric Laporte

Friday, 16 February, 2018 - 09:00
Aymeric Laporte during his Manchester City debut against West Brom. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
London - Sid Lowe
Aymeric Laporte turned Manchester City down once but he was not going to do it again and certainly not now. Pep Guardiola had tried to sign him in 2016 only for the Athletic Club defender to say he did not want to leave Bilbao; this time he did and “time” is the word. Guardiola admitted he had intended to return for the Frenchman in the summer but that, given what lies ahead, he brought that forward by six months. And while he insisted this signing is not just for now, it is for the next four or five years and beyond, the “now” matters – particularly for the player.

There was a reason Laporte, who made his City debut in Wednesday’s win over West Brom, stayed last time. He later admitted that because the bid had come when he was injured, he had concerns about his adaptation, about his ability to get up and running: he was young but it was more that not being at his best physically would make starting at a new club, league and country, with a new language, more difficult.

This season may not have been the most impressive of his career so far but he is “ready”, Guardiola says. Not just ready, but in a hurry. Despite being only 23, time was ticking. Laporte played 51 times for France at youth level but has never made his senior debut, did not look like doing so either and the World Cup is five months away.

The Spanish Football Federation had investigated the possibility of “signing” Laporte but he wants to play for France. Born in Agen, although he has Basque great-grandparents, he joined Athletic at 15 via Aviron Bayonnais. Aviron are a club in the French Basque country, just over the border, with formal links to Athletic allowing him to qualify to play for them under what is usually referred to as a “Basque-only” policy on the basis of having been “formed” in Euskal Herria, the Basque land. He thus became the only non-Spaniard in the team and only the second Frenchman to play for the club after Bixente Lizarazu.

Aviron Bayonnais play in a ground named after Lizarazu’s former international team-mate Didier Deschamps, but that did not make the France manager take notice. The problem, Laporte felt, was that he was “invisible” at San Mamés. In an interview with L’Equipe he admitted he was “sad” at not getting a call-up.

“I’m in Bilbao, at a club that’s maybe not sufficiently highly rated in France; maybe that influences things,” he said. Others, like Adil Rami at Marseille, got opportunities he didn’t. “For Spain, [being at Athletic] doesn’t seem to matter. Everyone has their opinion. If Marseille is a better club, it’s not much better,” he said. “If I had the same level at another club, [a call-up] would be more likely.”

At City he should not want for titles, as he admitted he did at Athletic, and, if he is playing in the Premier League and Champions League, invisibility is surely no longer an issue. That he felt that way – and, even more so, that he felt able to say so without fear that the idea would be simply dismissed, his claim laughed at – underlined how few doubts he had about his level.

Guardiola had few doubts too. When he turned down City the first time, Laporte had been warned by many that there would not be a second chance but there was. City watched other players – including Inigo Martínez, whom Athletic have signed to replace Laporte – but never forgot the first option.

At €65m Laporte is more expensive than he was then, when his buy-out clause stood at €42m. And yet given market inflation over the last six months, that no longer appears such a great leap and the clause, obligatory at all Spanish clubs, was one of the things that made signing him attractive – not because of the amount but because of its very existence: this was a deal that could be done quickly and without fuss.

That could be a description of the man they have signed. He has not been at his best this season, with Ernesto Valverde having departed to manage Barcelona and the side unable to find the form of previous years, but he has remained largely dependable and City had seen enough of him to look beyond any doubts that may have provoked: at 23 he has already played over 200 professional games and he has the qualities that his manager wants, even though the move to Manchester will oblige him to defend higher.

Guardiola admits that defending at City is not easy, because of the specific pressures and obligations put on players, but rather than a concern that is a reason why he has focused on Laporte, in whom he sees the ability to do just that – and, of course, to play.

“Laporte adds something special with the ball,” the coach says, describing him as “intelligent”. Left-footed, able to bring it out and also deliver a longer pass, he is quick enough to cover but, more importantly, to anticipate, winning the ball back swiftly, attacks ended early.

Athletic are often seen as the most “British” of Spanish teams and he is also strong in the air and has the physical qualities to adapt to the Premier League: tough and committed as well as clever. His manager’s insistence on technique and possession perhaps blinds to his desire for a defender too; a Puyol as much as a Piqué.

“We’ll be patient,” Guardiola said. Not so patient, though, that he wanted to wait until the summer. Laporte did not want to wait either.

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