Guardiola shouldn't remove Man City's old guard in its entirety this summer
Manchester City face the sort of scenario that's more common in League Two than at one of the world's wealthiest football clubs. Five of the starting XI are out of contract in the summer, as is a substitute. All six face uncertain futures, waiting to discover if they are wanted. Their employers risk losing it all.
It's the side that Pep Guardiola selected for last week's 0-0 draw against Stoke. While Arsenal are criticised for failing to secure the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, the duo are tied down until 2018. Six City players' deals expire this summer. Thus far, the club have made no attempt to keep them.
There is a marked difference, of course, between arguably the two best and most valuable players at a club and a sextet who seem to need City more than City need them. Guardiola appears to be delaying from a position of strength. A cull was long seen as a chance to shift the emphasis from generations, turning one of the division's oldest teams into something altogether younger. An exodus could be a rare opportunity, allowing the boss to make the squad younger and quicker, shaping it in his image with his signings.
It could save around £750,000 a week in wages on men who will have a combined age of 197 in the summer. The assumption has long been that Willy Caballero, Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy, Yaya Toure and Jesus Navas would all be thanked for their service and released.
And yet a rethink may be required. Not in all cases, clearly. Bidding farewell to the ludicrously one-dimensional Navas, a crosser whose crossing tends to be awful, should be a simple decision. But there may be a case for keeping three others. The grounds are part footballing, part financial. These players could be common-sense compromises and available, reliable squad members.
Even City do not have a bottomless pit of money. Even they might not be able to afford to write off £58 million of buys, especially given that director of football Txiki Begiristain's negotiating skills are such that they often end up paying a premium price to bring anyone in.
The thought is that City will try to make four or five major signings in the summer, the suggestion that a midfielder, a centre-back and two full-backs will be targeted and the feeling from most outside the club that a goalkeeper is necessary. In some cases, clearly, newcomers would look the replacements for the out-of-contract six.
Yet Caballero is currently the first-choice goalkeeper. With Joe Hart resigned to leaving City and Claudio Bravo so wretched that the experiment with the Chile international should be written off as a failure, there would still be a need for a reserve even if a new regular was recruited. Caballero may not always convince, but his record this season is respectable. He would be cheaper than buying another back-up.
The full-back positions represent an indictment of Begiristain, with the presence of four declining 30-somethings showing that the age profile of the squad has been neglected; a man with a broader remit than simply the short-termism of results ought to have acted before now. One thought was that the veterans were buying City time until academy products were ready to take their place in the squad. But if Pablo Maffeo is not deemed ready to be the second-choice right-back, there are reasons to offer a one-season deal to an old hand. Zabaleta, two years younger than Sagna, a hugely popular figure with a proven commitment to the club and one who has performed well at times this season, would be a worthy recipient.
If first-choice full-backs on either flank are bought along with a central defender who allows Guardiola favourite Aleksandar Kolarov to resume a role as the reserve left-back, Clichy -- who has been protected for too long by his status as a homegrown player -- should be discarded.
Few may mourn him. Parting company with Toure, one of City's greatest-ever players and a catalyst in their rise, would bring many a tribute. Yet his improbable renaissance and transformation from outcast to outstanding player means he ought to stay. Toure no longer has the physical power that Guardiola wants, but his reinvention as the holding midfielder has highlighted his passing game. It is evident the manager does not feel Fabian Delph and Fernando have the technical ability to operate in his midfield. Toure does, and with Fernandinho the only other player to impress at the base of the midfield and Ilkay Gundogan injury-prone, a slimmed-down figure whose attitude has been exemplary of late could offer an option for a further year.
Certainly by spurning interest from China, Toure has demonstrated his determination to extend his City career. The one potential problem lies in the form of his preposterous agent and consistent critic of Guardiola, Dimitri Seluk. It is safe to say City would rather never deal with him again. Yet if his client's quality persuades them to overcome their reservations, re-engaging Toure would cost rather less in than buying a player of his considerable ability.
It would be less of a statement than disposing of six stalwarts, but the pragmatic approach may be to keep a trio. Instead of taking an axe to City's old guard, perhaps Guardiola should use some secateurs. Selective pruning makes sense to keep some who have laid down roots in Manchester.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.