MANCHESTER, England — Manchester City signed France under-21 international Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Bilbao for a club-record fee of 65 million euros ($80 million) on Tuesday, taking its spending on center backs since 2014 to about $250 million.
The 23-year-old Laporte came close to joining City in 2016 — when Pep Guardiola took charge of the current Premier League leaders — but backed out of the move after feeling the Frenchman wasn’t quite ready.
Eighteen months later, City clinched the signing of the left-footed, ball-playing defender after meeting his buy-out clause, strengthening the team’s options in what has been a problem position for Guardiola and previous managers.
“He’s strong in the air, good quality with the pass. He is experienced, fast and he has the skills we need,” Guardiola said. “He is the perfect age, 23 years old, so hopefully he will have a long career here at Manchester City.”
Laporte is the second most expensive defender in soccer history, with only Virgil van Dijk — who joined Liverpool from Southampton for 75 million pounds ($100 million) at the start of January — costing more.
Since City won its most recent Premier League title in 2014, Eliaquim Mangala has arrived from FC Porto for a reported 42 million pounds and Nicolas Otamendi joined from Valencia for 32 million pounds in 2015. Another center back, John Stones, cost an initial 47.5 million pounds in 2016.
Vincent Kompany, the club’s other center back, has been at City since 2008 and is the captain. But the Belgium international might be surplus to requirements from next season, especially considering his injury record.
City also spent about 120 million pounds (then $155 million) on three fullbacks — Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo — in the last transfer window.
“Last summer we had a problem, with six or seven players out of contract and over 30 years old, so we needed to make a change,” Guardiola said. “We decided to sign four or five different players and at this stage, Manchester City, when you want to compete at the highest level, you need to spend.
“One day, maybe this club will spend 130-200 million pounds on one player. So far, we haven’t had to do that.”
Laporte made his debut in 2012 for Bilbao under Marcelo Bielsa — a coach revered by Guardiola — and quickly became one of the Spanish league’s most promising players. He said he likes to bring the ball out from the back, giving him the pedigree that suits Guardiola’s vision and making him a likely rival for Stones to play alongside Otamendi.
“Defenders do this more than ever before,” Laporte said in an interview with FourFourTwo magazine. “I spend as much time in training and matches working on starting attacks as I do stopping them.
“I’m usually quite calm in possession, so this helps initiate quicker, more fluid attacks from the back. I also like playing long, cross-field passes to change the position of an attack and give us another option. Variety is important.”
Barcelona has previously been linked with Laporte, who has similar qualities to Gerard Pique.
The size of the fee reflects the shortage of top-quality, left-footed center backs around at the moment — and comes two weeks after City turned down the chance to sign Alexis Sanchez partly because of the Chile forward’s financial demands.
Laporte has signed a contract until 2023 and becomes City’s most expensive player, with the fee exceeding the reported 55 million pounds spent on Kevin De Bruyne in August 2015.
City has four of the five costliest defenders in Premier League history — Laporte, Stones, Walker, and Mendy.
Laporte, who hasn’t played for France’s senior team, will be available for the knockout stage of the Champions League.
“All I know,” he said in an Instagram message to Athletic’s fans on Monday, “is that I will never forget the place where I’ve become a better player and a better person. That’s why this is not a ‘goodbye,’ only a ‘see you soon.'”
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80