Premier League Preview: Manchester City

Manchester City finally got their man when Pep Guardiola agreed to take charge at the Etihad in 2016. He won everything there is to win at his previous managerial posts – Barcelona and Bayern Munich – but, by Pep’s standards, it was a difficult inaugural season in East Manchester last year. City came flying out of the gate, and it looked like they would run away with the league title. But they didn’t. The defensive issues that plagued City for much of the season started showing up as fall turned to winter. Pep never had a stable back four last season; Fernandinho and Jesús Navas saw time at right back, and Aleksandar Kolarov was a regular in central defense. The goalkeeper situation was a revolving door between Claudio Bravo and Willy Caballero, who has since departed to back up Thibaut Courtois at Chelsea. Manchester City have brought in another goalkeeper – Ederson from Benfica – and have spent big money to improve both full back positions. There are still question marks in central defense, but City might just try to outscore everyone this season. With all the attacking talent in the side, I wouldn’t bet against that. However City line up and play this year, Pep will feel plenty of pressure to do better, and win some silverware, at home and abroad.

2016-17 Record & Finish
23-9-6 (W-D-L), 78 points, 3rd in the Premier League
+41 GD (80 GF, 39 GA)

Manager
Pep Guardiola – 2nd season with Manchester City

pep

Ins and Outs
Danilo (£25.5 million from Real Madrid)
Ederson (£34 million from SL Benfica)
Douglas Luiz (£10.2 million from Vasco da Gama)
Benjamin Mendy (£48.88 million from AS Monaco)
Bernardo Silva (£42.5 million from AS Monaco)
Kyle Walker (£43.35 million from Tottenham)

Willy Caballero (free to Chelsea)
Anthony Cáceres (on loan to Al-Wasl)
Gaël Clichy (free to Basaksehir)
Fernando (£4.46 million to Galatasaray)
Aleix García (on loan to Girona)
Angus Gunn (on loan to Norwich City)
Joe Hart (on loan to West Ham United)
Kelechi Iheanacho (£23.55 million to Leicester City)
Aleksandar Kolarov (£4.25 million to AS Roma)
Pablo Marí (on loan to NAC Breda)
Aaron Mooy (£7.74 million to Huddersfield Town)
Marlos Moreno (on loan to Girona)
Jesús Navas (free to Sevilla)
Nolito (£7.65 million to Sevilla)
Bacary Sagna (released)
Rubén Sobrino (£1.7 million to Deportivo Alavés)
Enes Ünal (£11.9 million to Villareal)
Pablo Zabaleta (free to West Ham United)
Bruco Zuculini (undisclosed to Hellas Verona)

X-factor
Due defensive diligence

 

Manchester City will have no trouble scoring goals – lots and lots of goals – in 2017-18. But in order for the Citizens to seriously challenge for titles, their defense has to improve drastically. A Pep Guardiola-led side likes to dominate possession and play mostly in the opponent’s half, but that left City wide open on the counter attack last year, and they were regularly ripped apart on the break. City have shelled out more than £150 million this summer on defenders and goalkeepers. How will all the new pieces fit together? How quickly will they adjust to life in the Premier League?

One hallmark of most championship teams is a consistent – and stout – defensive unit and system. Last year, City were consistent in playing a back four, one of the few English teams that didn’t experiment with three at the back at some point. But Pep shuffled his personnel all around his back line while playing multiple players out of position: midfielders as full backs and full backs as center backs. With all the money spent already, City have to get the defensive aspect of their game right; otherwise, serious questions will be asked of Guardiola. In a perfect world, he’ll want Vincent Kompany to stay healthy for close to a full season and partner/nurture John Stones as his center back sidekick. Benjamin Mendy should lock down the left back spot, and Kyle Walker should have the inside track on the right side, with Danilo also there to push him and provide some depth. Assuming Ederson is the number one goalkeeper, this will be a defensive unit with more newcomers than incumbents in 2017-18. If they can hit the ground running and establish cohesion and chemistry early, City will be primed for an excellent season. If they struggle, City supporters will start having flashbacks to last season, and Guardiola will really feel the pressure.

Best Case Scenario
Multiple trophies in Guardiola’s sophomore campaign in England: a Premier League title and a cup triumph. Even with all the money they’ve spent, City aren’t on a level to catch Real Madrid in Europe. Who is? But the Citizens will make a deep run in the UEFA Champions League, perhaps reaching the semifinals like they did in the spring of 2016 before bowing out to – you guessed it – Real Madrid. Pep employs a system that allows Sergio Agüero and Gabriel Jesus to play together, and they become the two-headed monster of an insanely good Manchester City attack. This team could score 100 Premier League goals this season. If their defending doesn’t improve, they might have to in order to win the league. But let’s assume that City correct much of their defensive malaise from a season ago; they will be unstoppable and absolutely roll to their third league title this decade. In a perfect world, Kompany makes at least 30 league appearances, and he and Stones emerge as a shutdown central defense partnership.

kun jesus

Worst Case Scenario
Ederson (and his neck tattoo) has a Claudio Bravo-like first season in Manchester, and the defensive problems plague Guardiola again this year. The back four in front of him is inconsistent, and Guardiola has to make regular changes there due to injury and poor form. Both Agüero and Gabriel Jesus had injury troubles last season; if they are both out at the same time, City’s attack will really be tested, especially with young Nigerian striker Kelechi Iheanacho off to Leicester. There’s still plenty of attacking firepower at the Etihad – Leroy Sané, Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, and David Silva – that even if Agüero and Jesus miss significant time, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over City in front of goal. But if they don’t get better defensively, Guardiola will face some difficult questions about his system, and City won’t win anything this year either. I can’t see them finishing lower than fourth, and they should make a deep run in at least one of the domestic cups. Poor defending is punished ruthlessly in Europe, so another 6-6 Champions League tie like City had against Monaco in the Round of 16 could be in the cards. Manchester City were knocked out of the competition by the French champions on the away goals tiebreaker. Love it or hate it, there’s an easy way to avoid it: don’t ship three goals at home!

ederson

If I were in charge for a day…
I would start working on different systems and styles of play in training. Everyone knows what to expect from a Guardiola-led team on match days: high-pressing, possession, passing soccer; with an extreme allergy to playing long balls, preferring to play out from the back. At Barcelona and Bayern Munich, you can win league titles by playing the same way every week. But in England, the league is too good from top to bottom, and other teams figure out how to exploit your weaknesses. Maybe it was arrogance; okay, it was definitely arrogance, but Guardiola simply refused to alter his team’s style of play, even when it backfired spectacularly – see City’s 4-2 loss at Leicester last December as a prime example. You have to make adjustments – both in-game and week to week – to formations, styles of play, and personnel. Guardiola probably won’t; in fact, I’d be shocked if he does. But if City showed a different look, even just occasionally, they’d be that much scarier to play against.

What will be their best 11 this season? On paper, here’s what I’d do:

Ederson; Walker, Kompany, Stones, Mendy; David Silva, de Bruyne; Sané, Jesus, Bernardo Silva; Agüero

City’s start isn’t terribly difficult, although there are a few tricky games among their first six. Guardiola will hope his side will be unbeaten heading into their showdown at Stamford Bridge on the final day of September. Here’s the first seven matches on Manchester City’s plate for 2017-18:

Aug. 12 – at Brighton & Hove Albion
Aug. 21 – vs. Everton
Aug. 26 – at Bournemouth
Sept. 9 – vs. Liverpool
Sept. 16 – at Watford
Sept. 23 – vs. Crystal Palace
Sept. 30 – at Chelsea

We’ll preview last season’s runner-up, Tottenham Hotspur, tomorrow. No Premier League team has won more points over the last two seasons than Spurs, but they’re still without a trophy during the Mauricio Pocchetino era. Tottenham haven’t made any major additions this summer. Might their window of opportunity be coming to an end?

As always, thanks for reading. Come on you Reds!

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