The £30m midfielder who could make all the difference to Manchester City’s title challenge

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Finding flaws with Manchester City’s squad is a forlorn task. So good have they been for the past five years, so dominant are their performances and so chock full is their trophy cabinet that trying to pick holes is like trying to spot a lazy brushstroke on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. They’re pretty damned good, and will be again this coming season.

But that doesn’t make them perfect, and they do now have a somewhat yawning gap on the teamsheet – the one left by the departure of İlkay Gündoğan. With the German international having headed to Barcelona on a free transfer, there is a vacancy for a midfielder who can build the play, exploit the channels, burst through defences and offer a goal threat – and very few players can claim to tick all of those boxes, and fewer still represent realistic purchases even with City’s Abu Dhabi-backed financial clout and pulling power.

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AFP via Getty Images

There is one player who could fit the bill, however – a player tenuously linked with Arsenal, Newcastle United and Paris Saint-Germain but not yet with a move to the Etihad, but one who would be one of the best bets for filling the void left by Gündoğan. That player is RC Lens’ Seko Fofana.

The Ivorian international began his senior career with a brief spell at Fulham, making just one second-tier appearance before moving to Bastia, where he impressed enough to earn a transfer to Udinese – and it was in Serie A, and later with Lens, where he gradually established himself and made his name. Now tentatively valued at around £30m by those who try to measure such things, the time is ripe for the 28-year-old to finally make his move to a big club, and Manchester City would make an immense amount of a sense as his next destination.

Like Gündoğan, Fofana is an all-action playmaker who crops up almost everywhere both in midfield and in the final third – and like Gündoğan, he is an expert at exploiting the channels and the half-spaces between defence and midfield. He’s also become dangerous in front of goal, registering 15 Ligue 1 goals over the past two seasons on top of six assists, numbers which compare well with Gündoğan.

Statistically, Fofana is wildly impressive right across the board. He’s not quite as accurate a passer as the now-departed German but is better with the ball at his feet, beating opponents on the dribble with impressive frequency. His lung-busting runs from deep have earned him comparisons with his compatriot and former City legend Yaya Touré, even if he isn’t quite so physically imposing, while his heat maps show him collecting the ball in midfield as often as he finds himself on the receiving end of passes in the box. He’s both creator and finisher – a gold dust combination.

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To become a Pep Guardiola player, of course, requires tactical discipline and a willingness to run oneself into the ground – and that isn’t a problem either. Fofana boasts an impressive engine and while he doesn’t make many tackles or interceptions, that was true of Gündoğan too, and Fofana offers similar willingness to sprint into position to maintain the pressure on opposing players in possession. It may be hard to pick holes in Manchester City, but it isn’t much easier to find faults in Fofana’s game. He’s a genuine all-rounder with the quality to play at the highest level.

Fofana was the key player as Lens finished just one point behind champions PSG, and it’s no surprise that the richest club in France are keen to secure his services. He was born in Paris and it may be hard to compete with the Qatari-backed club for his attentions, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying – and the allure of playing for the European champions has to count for something.

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The existing links with the Premier League – Arsenal and Newcastle – don’t seem to have too much too them as it stands. Arsenal’s purchase of Declan Rice and Kai Havertz means they are unlikely to be in the hunt for another progressive or box-to-box midfielder, while the Newcastle rumour seems to be based more on whispers from the winter than anything more recent. Which doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be keeping an eye given the relatively modest price tag – Newcastle, in particular, would unquestionably be getting an upgrade if they could persuade Fofana to make a move to Tyneside.

It’s City, though, that need a player like Fofana the most. Most of their existing attacking midfielders are more comfortable in wider roles and don’t offer so much in the heart of the park, while the aborted move for Rice suggests that Guardiola acknowledges the need for a player who can bridge midfield and attack effectively. They have some talented youngsters coming through to add depth – Cole Palmer is coming on, while Sergio Gómez has just finished a massively impressive European Under-21 Championships campaign, but they are different kinds of player who lack Fofana’s experience.

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So if City have a spare £30m or so floating around – and let’s face it, they do – they should surely be making a move before too long. There aren’t many players who offer as much as Fofana is as many departments, and he would surely ease the transition to a post- Gündoğan era. Simply put, Fofana is a player we can expect to hear much, much more from once he gets his teeth into the Champions League next season. Whether that’s at Lens, in Paris or in the sky blue of the Citizens, he should have a few very impressive years ahead of him.

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