Pep Guardiola’s side kicked off the season with victory in the Community Shield and they remain favourites for the Premier League title and Champions League. But maybe there is still hope for everyone else…
The ideal scenario for any manager is the opportunity to strengthen from a position of dominance. Guardiola has had that chance this summer but the City boss has only recruited one player – Riyad Mahrez.
City will view the arrival of Mahrez as another step forward, another boundary broken because they paid a club-record fee. Judging from the bizarre unveiling ceremony that Mahrez and those few in attendance sat through, City want it to be seen as a statement signing. A somewhat needless one, though. Mahrez is a nice option for Guardiola but he does not plug any holes in the squad.
Guardiola, though, is still looking for a midfielder. He thought City had one before Maurizio Sarri hijacked their move for Jorginho. “We would like to find maybe one more because we don’t have two specific players to substitute Fernandinho,” said Guardiola after City had seen off their very own tribute act at Wembley on Sunday.
So City could go into the season not a great deal stronger than last season when, admittedly, they cantered to the title. But…
While City may make incremental gains, their rivals are hoping for rather more radical improvement as they set about trying to rein in Guardiola’s side.
Manchester United were City’s closest challengers last season but like their derby rivals, Jose Mourinho’s men currently don’t appear much stronger, unless they suddenly get their act together in the transfer market this week. Recent history suggests they won’t so rather than pressing forward, Mourinho could be looking over his shoulder.
In the rear-view mirror, Guardiola might see Jurgen Klopp grinning from ear to ear while he steams past Mourinho while making ground on the champions. By addressing the weaknesses in their squad and making significant upgrades in other areas, Liverpool have played the transfer window better than any of their top-six rivals. Klopp’s was the only side to have the measure of City last season. If they can couple that capability with consistency then City will have to work a great deal harder to defend their title.
Elsewhere, Arsenal and Chelsea are beginning new eras, while Tottenham seem strangely reluctant to make any changes whatsoever. Unai Emery’s Arsenal appear much better equipped for their campaign but the gains required to mount a title challenge appear too great to be made in a single World Cup-dominated summer. Maurizio Sarri is hoping to beat City at their own game but, again, it may take a season before the new Chelsea boss feels primed to mount a title challenge.
So while Arsenal and Chelsea will presumably offer far sterner tests than last year, City’s greatest threat will presumably come from a Liverpool squad champing at the bit to get at Guardiola’s side.
It would be human for City’s players to ease off somewhat having being so dominant and winning with such ease last season. Okay, so we’re clutching at straws here but go with it…
Guardiola spoke this weekend about what drives him to embrace the Premier League challenge again: a phobia of defeat. “The fear to lose the games make me starving and hungry again,” he said prior to the Community Shield but anyone who knows Guardiola’s history will have needed little reassurance over the manager’s mentality.
Will his players match it? Guardiola is ready and armed with his carrot and his stick, but the manager cannot be entirely responsible for his players’ levels of motivation. Last season’s triumph scratched the title itch for the first time for all but four of Guardiola’s squad. Can they retain the same hunger to maintain Guardiola’s standards for another gruelling nine months?
It has been a decade since the Premier League was last retained; then by Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. Both of City’s previous title wins were followed by runners-up finishes and an 11-point and a nine-point deficit to United and Chelsea respectively.
None of UEFA's 55 registered nations have gone longer than England without the domestic title being retained.
Question (to which I don't know the answer): Has anywhere in the world gone longer?
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) August 6, 2018
One of the weaknesses evident in City’s last campaign was the inability to fight on all fronts. At one point during the winter, few people would have bet against them winning a Quadruple before they suffered a shock defeat at League One side Wigan in the FA Cup. In the end, Guardiola settled for the league and League Cup, with the Champions League defeat to Liverpool another black mark on their record.
Guardiola said last week that he feels City need more time to become a “real competitor” in the Champions League, though it felt more like an exercise in managing expectations. Leroy Sane spoke of his belief that City are getting closer while Mahrez let slip his new club’s intentions: “City have ambition to go further than the Champions League quarter-finals like they did last season.”
It is possible to be successful in Europe and at home. Six of the last ten Champions League winners were also crowned domestic champions and Guardiola’s Barcelona account for two of those occasions. But only twice in the last 20 years has it been managed by an English side – Ferguson’s United in 1999 and 2008.
To maintain Guardiola’s physically and mentally demanding style over 51 matches, plus whatever FA Cup and League Cup exertions City encounter, is a tough ask. Especially when many of City’s players have barely been given a break.
City are hardly the only team to have been heavily represented at the World Cup. But no club side had more players to reach the last eight in Russia.
What a team! pic.twitter.com/OxyfML9MPH
— Manchester City (@ManCity) July 5, 2018
Contractually, all players are entitled to an aggregate of five weeks off over the course of a year, with three weeks to be taken consecutively. But only 22 days after their involvement ended in Russia, Kyle Walker and John Stones started at Wembley on Sunday, while Vincent Kompany came off the bench. Benjamin Mendy’s appearance came three weeks to the day since he was crowned a World Cup winner, though his has been a somewhat unique workload.
Guardiola will have a far more complicated task in rotating his squad this term while spinning his Premier League and Champions League plates. Kevin De Bruyne was at Wembley on Sunday too ahead of his return to training on Monday. The Belgium star spoke of his tiredness in February after a 1-1 draw at Burnley.
“I was feeling it from the first minute,” he said. “You feel great for 10 games, then you feel okay for 10 games and then the rest you feel like sh*t.” That followed De Bruyne’s 42nd appearance in a season that only ended three weeks ago after 68 matches overall.
It will take a superhuman effort from City’s talisman to replicate his brilliance with so little rest between campaigns.
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