Did Manchester City sell the wrong midfielder?

As the summer went on and it became clear that Roberto Mancini was looking to add one if not two central-midfield players to his Manchester City squad, it was clear that someone already at the club was to be sold. Clearly, it was not going to be Yaya Toure, David Silva or Samir Nasri so that left the choice between Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong. With the latter hardly a first-team regular and with his contract expiring at the end of the season, Mancini eventually chose to dispose of his services for a cut-price fee to AC Milan rather than that of Barry’s.

However, judging by City’s defensive problems and the openness of their midfield, some have come to question the manager’s decision to sell De Jong. Indeed, Paul Merson in particular has voiced his concerns that Mancini may have made the wrong choice, arguing that City’s midfield is simply far too offensive-minded and is missing the combative defensive-work that De Jong was only too happy to provide in abundance.

The Dutchman had his critics during his time in Manchester, notably after the 2010 World Cup final where De Jong was widely condemned for his kung-fun like “tackle” on Spain’s Xabi Alonso only to then break Newcastle winger Hatem Ben Arfa’s leg when the Magpies visited the Etihad a few months later. However, one thing that could never be put against De Jong was his commitment to the team and in particular, his ability to play the “holding” defensive-midfield role superbly.

At times this season, it appears that is exactly what City are lacking, particularly in their failure to close games out effectively, such as against Real Madrid in the Champions League and against Arsenal. On occasions when City would have a slender lead last season, Mancini would often throw on De Jong to just shore up his side and ensure that opposition attackers did not take up dangerous spaces between the lines of defence and midfield. The move also allowed Yaya Toure to move further up the pitch and it was a combination that would eventually help bring City the title in the latter games of the season.

However, this year, Mancini is forced to choose between either Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia or Gareth Barry. Rodwell and Garcia are both new signings and inevitably need time to settle in Manchester. For one, Garcia is a more creative deep-lying player and cannot be expected to fulfil the destructive defensive duties that De Jong carried out with such distinction while Rodwell, arguably the Dutchman’s more direct replacement, remains callow and has struggled at times, particularly with his passing. De Jong may not have been the most incisive or flashiest user of the ball but his simple passing was undoubtedly effective to City’s control of matches, as proved by his record of being statistically the most successful passer of the ball in the 2010-11 season.

The problem is that De Jong’s role, that of the holding midfield destroyer has gone completely out of fashion. Led by the Spanish national team and Italy’s Andrea Pirlo, the role of the “defensive” midfielder has been subverted and is now creative, rather than destructive. Of course, defensive discipline is key, but the “defending” is done by retaining possession and clever usage of the ball, rather than hustling and tackling and as successful as De Jong’s pass completion may be, forward passes are not really part of his repertoire.

Perhaps that is what led to Mancini choosing to keep Barry, for the England international not only takes up a defensive role but importantly, is seen to be a progressive and forward-passer of the ball. However, the 31-year-old has only just recovered from the injury that ruled out of both Euro 2012 and City’s pre-season campaign and has looked ponderous to say the least in his performances for the club since his return. Indeed, even his normally sure-fire passing appears to have regressed and if Mesut Ozil had Barry looking as if he was running through quick-sand at the 2010 World Cup, then one can hardly expect a Gareth Barry that is two years older and recovering from a serious injury to be any quicker. At this stage, there appears to be no suggestion that Mancini made the right choice at all in keeping Barry over a four years younger De Jong.

Selling De Jong might eventually be the right move to City, particularly if Rodwell and Javi Garcia overcome their early wobbles. However, in the short-term, City need to make up the ground in both the Premier League and the Champions League and it is certainly not a stretch to say that if De Jong still remained at the club, the realities may not quite be as stark as they are now.

Adam Mazrani