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Jan 20, 2011

City count the cost of Hughes errors

The great exodus has begun. The overrated and the overpaid have started to scatter, some complaining of the coldness of a manager who doesn't appear to appreciate their gifts. Few seem to be expressing gratitude for the munificence that has allowed them to amass millions without actually doing anything of worth.

Because while Manchester City hope that Edin Dzeko will prove the most influential addition of the January transfer window, there is a pertinence to the departures at Eastlands. Wayne Bridge and Roque Santa Cruz have already gone out on loan; Emmanuel Adebayor and Shaun Wright-Phillips could follow. Were a replacement to be bought - at considerable cost, presumably - then Joleon Lescott might be allowed to join them.

There is a common denominator: all are Mark Hughes' buys. Indeed, only the returning Wright-Phillips was not a 2009 arrival. What could be seen as Roberto Mancini stamping his mark on the City squad is something altogether simpler - an attempt to divest himself of misfits. Only Adebayor has produced on the pitch and much too sporadically for City's liking. His failings are of temperament, not talent.

Bridge contrived to sum up his declining career in 90 minutes on his West Ham debut. Rumoured to be the world's best-paid full-back, he was at fault for all three Arsenal goals. First Theo Walcott was afforded the freedom of Upton Park to pick his pass, then a strange attempt to play offside five yards behind the rest of the defence failed before the befuddled Bridge chopped down Walcott for a penalty. Embarrassing for anyone, it was an indictment of City's original decision to pay him £90,000 a week. That Mancini appeared to deem Bridge, at best, his fourth-choice left-back (behind Aleksandar Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta and Jerome Boateng, two of whom are right-footed) was unflattering, but not unfair.

For Santa Cruz, judgment day came earlier than expected. When the Paraguayan was omitted from City's 25-man squad for the Europa League, it was evident Mancini had moved on. A preference for Jo bemuses but it hardly helps that the striker, twice signed by the Italian's predecessor, was seen as a Hughes loyalist, yet the reality that Santa Cruz is injured all too often counts against him. His first season at Blackburn, whom he has since rejoined on loan, was the only campaign of constant first-team football in his career.

Indeed, few signings in the Premier League era have offered less value for money than Santa Cruz: £18 million bought a player who made six league starts, one of them lasting less than ten minutes. A man who complained he wasn't given a chance rarely merited one. As with Bridge, the much-maligned Garry Cook has done well to find a club willing to pay all of his considerable wages, although the fact that City have waived their right to a loan fee has contributed.

The gulf between price and performance was apparent elsewhere. Lescott became the third-most expensive defender in the world when Hughes paid £22 million for him, but he was briefly demoted behind the callow Dedryck Boyata in the pecking order earlier in the season and City have conceded six times in his last 219 minutes on the pitch. Wright-Phillips, whose stepfather, Ian, strangely stated he was underpaid last year, has been inconsistent and unreliable. Adebayor has the physical and footballing attributes to be as feared as Didier Drogba but can veer between uninterested and self-destructive. A victim in part of Mancini's fondness for playing Carlos Tevez as a solitary striker, he has nonetheless not helped himself.

There is a temptation to say that, as City are genuine title contenders, the club has outgrown them; the alternative theory is that most were never good enough to begin with. Hughes' buys can be divided into two categories: the British-based players and the imports. The latter have almost all prospered, but only a minority of the recruits from rivals have succeeded. As the logic behind their purchases was that those accustomed to the Premier League would settle quicker, it is doubly damning that such a high proportion failed.

Indeed, Kolo Toure, signed from Arsenal, only flourished after Mancini's appointment and when he was separated from Lescott. It can be disputed which is more significant. Yet, while some think the Italian is waging war on his predecessor's men, a majority of his favoured side joined in Hughes' 18-month reign. Together with Craig Bellamy and Shay Given, who are likely to sever their connections with the club, they represent the only respectable pieces of business done by a man who acquired a deserved reputation as a bargain hunter at Blackburn.

But it is instructive to consider them: Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany were comparatively cheap recruits from foreign clubs before Sheikh Mansour's takeover; Nigel de Jong was costlier and joined later, but without any previous Premier League experience; Toure and Gareth Barry are now seen as solid senior professionals, though neither belongs in the bracket of great buys. It leaves Tevez as the lone, lasting triumph in the British transfer market from Hughes' time at the world's richest club. And, expensive as he was, the combined cost of Bridge, Santa Cruz and co is far greater.

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