If Pep Guardiola’s first season in charge at Manchester City is considered as his settling in period then his second season in charge, therefore, takes a much greater importance as he looks to replicate his previous success with both Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Manchester City, a team that in recent years has become so accustomed to battling it out at the very top of the Premier League table may well have been happy with an eventual third place finish and reaching the Round of 16 in the UEFA Champions League but with the sheer investment that has gone into the club both before and since Pep’s arrival, it’s fair to say that much greater success on all fronts is to be expected this season.
Ending last season with an unbeaten streak of eight games including six victories, clearly, it was City’s early season form which proved to be their downfall with notable defeats against title challenging opposition highlighting that the club was perhaps still a full season and two transfer windows away from fully competing for the Premier League title. Many may point to victories over Arsenal at the Etihad and an early season victory over local rivals Manchester United, the infamous game in which Claudio Bravo gave football fans a glimpse of what was to be expected throughout the season, as highlights from the previous campaign. But with the good also comes the bad and there was plenty of it with resounding defeats coming at the hands of both Everton and Leicester City proving to be particularly low points and of course not forgetting City’s 3-1 home defeat to Chelsea which descended into chaos both on and off the pitch.
Nevertheless a new season means change, a new beginning and a fresh start for Guardiola’s men and with the cobwebs hopefully dusted off following the club’s relatively successful tour of the United States, you do sense there is a genuine optimism amongst City fans that success under Pep isn’t far away although whether it proves to be domestically or through the coveted and highly sought after UEFA Champions League certainly remains to be seen.
Improvements to the squad
Before City fans had time to mourn the sudden loss of Joe Hart last season as he set sail for the Serie A in what later proved a mixed loan season for the England Number 1 (albeit for how much longer), sadness at Hart’s departure soon became bewilderment after a series of highly suspect performances from Bravo. Seen largely as an upgrade on the Englishman, Bravo’s showings certainly left a lot to be desired throughout the course of the season and whilst City fans have come to appreciate Guardiola’s tactical thinking in swapping Hart for a goalkeeper such as Bravo, sadly some things just don’t work out and Bravo as City’s number one is perhaps one that hasn’t gone to plan. Nevertheless, one man’s misfortune is another man’s money and in comes the promising Brazilian goalkeeper Ederson from Benfica. His pre-season performances so far have largely been impressive with his several key saves and his trademark long-range goal kicks far outweighing his positional naivety for Romelu Lukaku’s goal against the club in their pre-season derby. With Ederson in the City side, things certainly look both a lot calmer and settled.
The transfer saga that at times never looked like it was going to end was finally concluded a matter of weeks ago after Benjamin Mendy’s teasing Twitter hints and speculative Snapchat posts were correct as he joined Manchester City for an undisclosed fee – reported, however, to be a tad higher than that paid for fellow full back, Kyle Walker. Monaco may well look at their ever growing bank balance and profit made on Mendy as shrewd business but what City are signing is a full-back that seemingly ticks every box for a club that has been crying out for a defender like Mendy for some time. A bit like replacing a car that you have had for years and has always served you well but it one day suddenly suffers a fault which makes its owner realise that it’s time for change, with a much more modern and quick automobile, whilst both Aleksandar Kolarov and Gael Clichy have been loyal club servants for several seasons, the arrival of Mendy appears to have rediscovered a great deal of optimism amongst City fans when it comes to comparing our full backs with those of our rivals.
Admittedly I was one of very few that was slightly sceptical about giving into Daniel Levy’s demands and paying what felt like king’s ransom for Kyle Walker but upon later reflection, Walker’s arrival at City could well prove to be the best bit of business the club does for a while. Aside from the obvious benefit that another home-grown player will have in complying with Premier League rules, not only have City signed a player with a wealth of Premier League experience but also one that appears genuinely hungry for both progression and success on the pitch with the club. With the vast sums of money floating around in modern football, footballers are on many occasions (and sometimes unfairly) branded as being motivated more so by finances than footballing success. Yet with Walker it does seem that a successful period with City won’t only just do wonders for his own career both at club and international level but his drive for success may well have a lasting impact on the likes of John Stones, Danilo and Mendy – much younger players with a long future ahead of themselves at the club. Meanwhile, Walker’s pace down the right-hand flank could be one of City’s most potent attacking resources this season and although Pablo Zabaleta’s departure was indeed a sad one, Walker does appear a worthy and apt replacement for the Argentinian.
In many ways, the forgotten man when considering City’s transfer business this window, the signing of Bernardo Silva felt like it happened almost too quickly as Premier League fans were still attempting to get their breath back after a scintillating season of football. However as is the nature of modern day football, just as things begin to slow down it’s never long before action both on and off the pitch revs up again and Bernardo’s arrival very much exemplifies that – joining City on a five-year contract for a reported £43m. For those with an eagle eye on European Football and particularly the next best thing, Bernardo has certainly been highly regarded for a number of seasons both during his time in Portugal as well as at Monaco and the Portuguese midfielder’s performances undoubtedly have caught Guardiola’s attention during his sides Champions League matches against City last season. If he is able to recreate the form which led Monaco to the Ligue 1 title last season, the price in adding Bernardo alongside David Silva could prove to be a bargain and for the good of City’s title chances, let’s hope Bernardo hits the ground running right away.
If there’s one lesson that City fans have learned very quickly in what was Pep’s first season with the club it’s that it is almost impossible to correctly predict a Guardiola side. Having said that, given the significant investment and improvements made in key areas it does appear that Pep has at long last responded to some of the club’s most burning problems notably in addressing wider defensive areas making predicting City’s team selection only the slightest bit easier.
From back to front, you would most certainly bank on Ederson featuring as City’s number one for the league and European matches with Bravo perhaps adopting more a backup. In defence, City have experimented with three, four and five in the past twelve months with Guardiola most recently during the club’s pre-season tour of the USA often using a back three of Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany with Danilo and Walker in wide positions. Whether that can be considered as a defensive line of three or in fact is up to you but when it comes to a system that works game by game give and take a few minor tweaks, I believe Pep will stick to a back four albeit a much more settled and balance defensive line than last season with the likes of Jesus Navas and Fernandinho often filling in at full back and the likes of Bacary Sagna and Kolarov at centre half. With Walker and Mendy reported to be Pep’s first-choice wing backs, should Kompany stay fit then expect the Belgian to partner Stones at the heart of the City defence.
In what has often been perceived as either a 4-3-3 or 4-1-2-3, it would be unsurprising not to see Fernandinho as a regular starter in his traditional role in defensive midfield. Yaya Toure will be there to provide some much-needed competition to keep the Brazilian on his toes too and a fully fit Ilkay Gundogan could also prove tough competition for Fernandinho with the German hot on his heels after recent injury. For the time being, however, Fernandinho is a starter. Kevin De Bruyne will almost certainly be one of the first names on the team-sheet so expect the Belgian to feature regularly but with one position up for grabs, it will be interesting to see just who makes it their own as the season goes ahead. With some degree of certainty, it will more than likely be one of the two Silva’s but fitting both into his plans in central midfield could prove one to be of Guardiola’s biggest headaches this season, as could accommodating the man of the moment Phil Foden and the very impressive Brahim Diaz into his first-team plans.
Likewise just as problematic as it proved to juggle both Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus last season with both warranting starting positions due to their impressive goal scoring form, should City move for either one of Alexis Sanchez or Kylian Mbappe before the transfer window shuts then it will be anybody’s guess to just how City will line up in attack. With Bernardo capable of filling in both at central attacking midfield and as a wide attacking player, expect Bernardo to rival the likes of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling for starting positions and the tussle to become City’s leading man also looks set to continue between Brazil and Argentina, Jesus and Aguero respectively. Similarly given Guardiola’s track record of making the best of player’s individual attributes albeit in different positions to what they are used to, I’ll even put my neck on the line to suggest Pep even opting for a Danilo in a wide left position as cover for Sane. Whilst it’s nothing more than my own speculation at present, you heard it here first.
Prediction: how City will line-up for the first game of the season (in my opinion):
One eye on the future
Without sounding like a stuck record but because of the vast investment put into City’s widely admired Football Academy, with the passing of each season you do wonder just when its real ‘breakthrough’ year may be. With many of the club’s youngsters performing well for both club and country at youth level, in many ways it may well be Guardiola’s greatest risks in blooding young players into City’s starting XI too quickly but nonetheless you would think the club as a whole are pining for the day in which its Academy begins to replenish first-team losses and potentially replaces the significant sums of money being spent on a yearly basis.
Out of the current crop of City youngsters, Phil Foden has rightly grabbed the headlines not only after an eye-catching display against Manchester United in recent weeks but more importantly that it is recognised, throughout the whole of City’s pre-season tour of the USA. Similarly Brahim Diaz is another player who certainly springs to mind as a hot prospect for the future but after impressing in a similar way to teammate Foden, most notably his goal against Real Madrid, Diaz also stands as great a chance as Foden in breaking into the first-team perhaps in domestic cup competitions or through squad rotation this season.
The interesting case, however, centres on highly rated 17-year-old Jadon Sancho who after being left out of the club’s pre-season tour of the USA is reportedly looking for a move away from the Etihad with the likes of Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester United all said to be interested in his services. No matter what has gone City will surely be not looking to lose one of their most prized young assets at such a vital period in his development and realising his potential and for the good of the club, let’s hope a resolution to what has soon become a transfer saga of its very own is soon achieved.