IF reports are to be believed, Manchester City will sign French centre-back Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Bilbao tomorrow or Tuesday. Laporte has a buy-out clause in the region of £57 million and, while he hasn’t necessarily kicked on since bursting on to the scene as a much-hyped 19-year-old four years ago, he very much fits a certain mould.

He is tall, mobile, left-footed and extremely comfortable on the ball. In short, he is the sort of player who could be John Stones’ photo-negative. Indeed, rather creepily, the two were born 24 hours apart.

A bit like Stones when he first arrived, Laporte will need time to settle and learn the Pep Guardiola way. One of the criticisms at Bilbao is that he is sometimes a little too confident and blase when in possession and his decision-making hasn’t been the best either.

Loading article content

Remarkable as it sounds, he has yet to be capped for France, ostensibly for this very reason. And it is not as if Les Bleus – beyond Samuel Umtiti, Laurent Koscielny and the oft-injured Raphael Varane – are teeming with depth at the centre-half position. Indeed, at one point, Laporte – who has been capped up to Under 21 level by France – was mulling switching allegiance to Spain.

Still, these are things that can be worked on, mental aspects that can be improved; you can’t teach pace, strength or, beyond a certain point, technique. And that is what Guardiola is getting here: a piece of clay which he may or may not be able to sculpt into a top-drawer centre-back.

On the surface, it is a straight-forward situation. Manchester City needed another central defender, given Vincent Kompany’s injury record and Eliaquim Mangala’s limitations (plus, the fact that both are out of contract in 2019 and neither is likely to get a new deal).

The fact Laporte isn’t just a huge investment – even by City standards – but rather a long-term project offers a clear hint that perhaps Guardiola is ready to commit to the club beyond 2019, when his deal expires.

Much as we like to repeat that football has “gone mad” when it comes to transfer fees, there are only so many £40m-plus gambles that even a top club can take. And for that price, Laporte remains very much a gamble, albeit one that can pay off handsomely… as long as he is working with the right manager and that manager is heavily invested in his success. It is hard to imagine Guardiola being happy to help Laporte fulfil his potential and then not be around to reap the benefits.

MEANWHILE, as Guardiola was making the sort of signing that suggests he will be around for a fourth season (or more), Jose Mourinho was inking his own extension. The Manchester United boss added a year to his deal, with an option for a further season.

When managers extend their deals, there is usually a fair amount of spin involved. In fact, it really only matters in terms of one thing: compensation. That is the compensation they receive if they are sacked and the compensation due to the club should they choose to go elsewhere.

In this case, the latter isn’t really a factor. There is no club right now that he would want to join and would want to have him on board. Even the most cited option, Paris St Germain, isn’t particularly attractive, given the uncertainty over Financial Fair Play. And in terms of him being sacked, it would take a spectacular nosedive – like the one he went through at Chelsea in 2015-16 – for that even to be a possibility.

Nope, this is a “bare minimum” extension. And it shows that, right now, the leverage is entirely with Manchester United. They have committed funds, they have delivered Alexis Sanchez, now it is up to him to do his part.

So far, so good: United are second in the table (it’s not Mourinho’s fault City are so far ahead) and they are still alive in the Champions League and FA Cup. He may or may not win a trophy this season, but in any case that won’t be the real measure of his work. The test will come next year, when he will have had enough time to build the sort of team he wanted and to drill his philosophy into his players.

In other words, it’s a “wait and see” situation. Which, given some of Ed Woodward’s excesses in other departments, makes perfect sense right now.

CHELSEA host Newcastle United this afternoon and the mood around Antonio Conte is glum. The defending champions have won just one of their last seven in all competitions, they were eliminated from the League Cup semi-final by a far-from-unstoppable Arsenal and they sit 15 points behind Manchester City in the Premier League.

The January transfer window has brought little to cheer about (unless you are a really, really big Ross Barkley fan) and Conte himself is doing little to disabuse the notion that he will be gone in June.

On Friday, he said he was “relaxed” about the future, making sure to point out that the club have “sacked” 10 managers in the previous 10 years and reminding everyone that every signing since his arrival was the club’s choice. It feeds a popular narrative. These days, mad Roman Abramovich and his high priestess Marina Granovskaya make life impossible for coaches while doing their own thing in the transfer market rather than listening to the “football men”.

The riposte to that, of course, is that by operating in this way, with an eye on budgets, Chelsea have managed to compete in the Financial Fair Play Era despite not having the brand, gate receipts or fan base of the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. And by operating in this way they have won two league titles, a Champions League crown, a League Cup and a Europa League in the six seasons since FFP was introduced. That they have done it with six different managers, four of whom won silverware, speaks to the fact it is evidently working.

You can’t help but see shades of Conte’s time at Juventus here, when he would grumble continually about transfers and how the club wasn’t spending enough. The difference then is that they were winning Serie A every season. But it still ended with him walking out after his third consecutive title.