Column - Pep needs Neuer more than Messi

"My centre is giving way, my right is retreating, situation excellent, I am attacking."
– French general Ferdinand Foch during WW1.

THE MORE YOU WATCH MANCHESTER CITY, the more they resemble France's beleaguered Ninth Army in 1914. Overwhelmed by superior firepower, the plight of Foch's men was desperate but the general knew only one way to fight.

Fast forward 103 years and you see the similarities with Pep Guardiola. Attacking is his only way, too, and that quip about his ideal team being "11 midfield players" was made not entirely in jest: it looks like he's been trying it ever since he got rid of Joe Hart.

Yes, he has played a lone striker – although even that has been with some reluctance – but he certainly hasn't played with a goalkeeper. Not one remotely good enough for top-flight football anyway.

We saw it again this week as City once again found their centre giving way. No sooner had they taken the lead against Monaco than they were 2-1 down thanks to shooting themselves in the foot. This time the opposition's "assists" came from Willy Caballero, now preferred to the even more calamitous Claudio Bravo, but bearing similar comical traits.

The Argentine did partially redeem himself with a second-half penalty save from a rejuvenated Radamel Falcao, but it did nothing to alleviate the sense of dread that overcame the Etihad every time the visitors breached the front line.

The so-called defence was every bit as dodgy as the keeper but what would eventually send the place into ecstasy and, of which Foch would have been proud, was their never-say-die attack.

But such are the doubts about the rear that even carrying a two-goal lead to the principality next month has most pundits rating City's chances of reaching the quarterfinals at no more than 50-50.

Indeed, Pep betrayed his own doubts by conceding that progress depends on "scoring more goals".

This comes in a week when the rumour mill ground out yet another story linking City to Lionel Messi, whose dismay over his tax problems tends to mount whenever Barcelona get beaten.

But despite the pulling power of Pep and the funds to make it happen, there are just too many obstacles for the 'Messi to Manchester' bandwagon to get under starter's orders: the weather, the insane fixture pile-up, the physicality and, yes, high taxes spring immediately to mind.

Altogether more realistic, however, is the prospect of another so-called "worldie" being tempted.

Manuel Neuer is widely acclaimed as the best keeper on the planet and worked with Pep for three years at Bayern Munich.

The giant German is less likely to be put off by the things that make Manchester a no-no for a Latino will-o'-the-wisp like Messi. Neuer already has a command of English, comes from a culture and climate not too dissimilar and, almost a foot taller, can look after himself. After six lonely seasons in the Bayern goal, he may just fancy a new challenge.

It is not unheard of for top players who are seemingly settled at top clubs to have the urge to seek fresh pastures before twilight descends on their careers – Johan Cruyff, Kevin Keegan, Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all switched clubs and enhanced their reputations.

And Neuer, who can never complain of being overworked, might just be a bit bored.

He is the epitome of the modern sweeper-keeper, coming out when necessary but eschewing the suicidal forays we've seen from Bravo. His distribution is better than the Chilean's anyway but he doesn't pretend he's Franz Beckenbauer.

He would cost a world record fee for a keeper but it would still be nowhere near as much as Messi and, although he's the same age (30), as a keeper his battery-life could be much longer.

This column rates Messi as nothing short of a genius and the best club player of all time. He would electrify the whole Premier League not just City, and seeing him there remains a dream. But in the cold light of a tumultuous season, in pure footballing terms – marketing is another story – City don't actually need him.

They already have a sensational attack including the player many good judges feel is Messi's heir apparent in Gabriel Jesus whom they snared for a piddling £27 million. Nope, a complete reconstruction of the defence – including the foundations – has to be the priority.

Looking back now, removing Hart was nothing short of a catastrophe – it may have even cost City the title.

We can count close to eight points lost through the hapless Bravo's inability to stop a draught, but no one knows for sure how many went begging because he turned those in front of him into gibbering wrecks.

That is only a partial excuse for a ramshackle back four and Pep must also rue his decision to risk a quartet of 30-plus full-backs and a makeshift centreback pairing.

He was unlucky with Vincent Kompany, but John Stones is anything but a rock yet Pep made him the world's most expensive defender.

Neuer alone would not be the answer and it's doubtful if he'd consider the job without assurances that those in front of him knew at least the basics of defending.

It could boil down to how he gets on with Pep anyway but a new keeper is an absolute must even if Angus Gunn, who shone in pre-season, is considered the long-term future. The young Englishman would learn a lot from the German master.

Meantime, City continue this roller-coaster debut season for Pep with mixed feelings.

A missed title perhaps but would Jesus, Leroy Sane or Ilkay Gundogan have come were it not for Pep? And would Messi and Neuer even give such a move a second's thought?

Tuesday night's game was a classic, a sumptuous feast of finesse and farce, and neutrals must hope for more where that came from.

We also hope the great man has learned enough about English football not to make the same mistakes next season.

An attack-minded manager has to be applauded and the good news for City fans is that Foch won the battle in the end.