Manchester City likely regret selling Jerome Boateng to Bayern Munich
Having triumphed in the Premier League for the second time, Manchester City's obvious objective this season was to finally impress in European competition. A 1-0 loss at Bayern Munich in their opening game of their Champions League campaign wasn't the ideal beginning.
Losing at Bayern is no disgrace, but the nature of the defeat was particularly frustrating. The goal came in the final minute of the game, and it was also scored by an ex-City player: Jerome Boateng's long-range strike appeared to take a slight deflection off Mario Gotze, but UEFA credited the defender with the winner.
Boateng's Manchester City spell has been all but forgotten. Recruited in 2010 following an impressive run to the Europa League semifinals with Hamburg, then a run to the World Cup semifinals with Germany, Boateng was regarded as an extremely talented young footballer. He wasn't, however, remotely close to the finished product.
Boateng was included for the 2010 World Cup squad partly because of his versatility. In his final season with Hamburg, he'd regularly switched between right back and left back, sometimes deputized in the center of defence, and even played one game as a holding midfielder.
Being comfortable in a range of positions can be tremendously helpful for a youngster to gain valuable playing time, and can allow them to become a well-rounded footballer. Eventually, however, most defensive players need to understand how to play in one position permanently -- Boateng never had this experience at Hamburg, and even for Germany at the World Cup, he was played in both full back positions.
For City he made just 14 league starts: 11 times on the right, twice at left-back and once in the center of defence alongside Vincent Kompany. Roberto Mancini clearly didn't consider him a reliable option in the center, despite the fact he didn't entirely trust Kolo Toure or Joleon Lescott, either. Boateng pushed for a move toward the end of his only campaign in Manchester, partly as he wanted to return to Germany, but also because he wanted to play at center back.
The problem, in part, was simply that City weren't accustomed to dealing with players in Boateng's mold: talented, but raw. Recently, City have benefited from signing established, successful players who need to be managed rather than developed, and it's tough to think of a genuine youngster who has been brought on under the new City regime. The closest thing, Matija Nastasic, seems to have fallen out of favour with little obvious explanation.
Bayern are different: they have a strong emphasis upon youth development and have brought through the likes of Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller in recent years - among many others -- throwing them in before they were close to their peak, but accelerating their development to that peak.
On paper, it was strange for Boateng to move from Manchester City, yet to become a title winner, to Bayern Munich in search of first-team football, but this brave move worked excellently. In Boateng's first campaign he started 26 league games, 20 of them at center back. Notably, Bayern were more tolerant of his mistakes. His dismissal at Hannover in October 2011, for shoving Christian Schulz (a slightly harsh decision, but it was still stupid for Boateng to get involved) meant Bayern had to play the majority of the game with 10 men, and lost 2-1. Nevertheless, after his suspension, Jupp Heynckes put him straight back in the side.
The following season he started 25 matches, all of them at center back, and recovered well from losing his place midway through the season, and had regained his center back place by the time of the European Cup final victory over Dortmund at Wembley.
His major improvement, however, came when Pep Guardiola was appointed Bayern coach last summer. Until then, Boateng still seemed a rash defender, forever diving into tackles and getting himself into trouble with his all-action nature. Under the leadership of Guardiola, there's a newfound maturity to his game -- Boateng's now much better in a positional sense and anticipates danger more readily. Intriguingly, this seems to be a direct result of his new coaching.
Coincidentally, the start of Boateng's transformation at Bayern came when his old club Manchester City were training on the adjacent pitch, ahead of the preseason Audi Cup tournament. As revealed in Marti Perarnau's excellent book "Pep Confidential," a behind-the-scenes look at Guardiola's first campaign in Bavaria, the new Bayern coach was fascinated when he realized Boateng had never actually been taught how to defend properly.
"Guardiola discovered Boateng is totally self-taught," writes Perarnau. "The young German defender has been explaining that no one has ever shown him how to defend. In fact, Boateng confesses that he didn't even know that the defensive line could be organized. He thought that every player defended instinctively.
"Guardiola is enchanted by Boateng's wide-eyed innocence on this point, and realizes that he has a pearl on his hands. This is someone with an enormous amount of potential as well as a clear willingness to learn."
Boateng's naivety seems remarkable considering he was, by that point, already a European Cup winner, and perhaps the truth is simply that Boateng hadn't been taught in a manner Guardiola would appreciate. Nevertheless, the transformation in his game over the past 16 months is remarkable, and suggests Boateng has learned new concepts and adapted to them impressively. Besides, it also implies that Boateng was previously coping simply by depending upon his physical qualities -- and even then, he was a good defender. With more fine-tuning, he could become a great.
It's rare Guardiola has encountered a player in this situation. At Barcelona, the majority of the players he depended upon with were trained at La Masia, and therefore were familiar with the concepts Guardiola preached. He had a decent record at improving center backs, in various ways: Gerard Pique matured into one of the world's best, Javier Mascherano switched from midfield successfully, and Eric Abidal became a genuine top-class defender having previously appeared something of a liability.
But Barcelona's players were usually technically and tactically skilled anyway. Boateng is a different case: someone who got to the top through physicality, but hadn't been drilled tactically -- at least not at center back, anyway. No other Bayern player has improved so much under Guardiola, and Boateng was probably Germany's most consistent defender throughout their triumphant World Cup campaign, too -- whether at right back or center back.
City must wish they'd given Boateng a proper chance in the middle. Since Boateng signed for City four years ago, they've experimented with Toure, Lescott, Nastasic, Stefan Savic, Martin Demichelis and Eliaquim Mangala alongside Kompany (who is looking less assured himself these days) but haven't ever found a reliable partnership. It's particularly odd considering Boateng wasn't rawer than Savic, Nastasic or Mangala, and City were content to give Demichelis time to settle in and overcome early positional problems.
Ahead of his return to the Eithad, players in Boateng's position are often said to be "out for revenge." But as a regular for a European Cup-winning side and a World Cup-winning side the past two years, there's no reason for Boateng to be remotely bitter. The transfer worked out excellently for both Boateng and Bayern -- it's City who have the regrets.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.