Premier League preview: Manchester City need stronger title challenge with Pep Guardiola's reputation on the line

In December 2015, Bayern Munich confirmed that Josep “Pep” Guardiola would leave them at the end of the 2015-16 season. At the time, Guardiola — one of the world’s most celebrated football managers — had not revealed where his next destination would be. He had been here before; in 2012, he had announced his decision to step down from Barcelona and hand over the reins to his assistant Tito Vilanova. He then took a year’s sabbatical to “recharge his batteries” in New York. His decision to leave Barcelona stirred the pot of speculation that was his next destination. Naturally, clubs around Europe were angling for the poster boy of modern-day football and were devising their own strategies to land him.

For their part, Manchester City signed Txiki Begiristain — the former Barcelona sporting director who made Guardiola the manager in 2008 — as their new Director of football. They also had Ferran Soriano, another Barcelona old timer who was now their CEO. With these two appointments in place, they hoped to nab Guardiola. However, in the January 2013, the Spaniard chose Bayern Munich as his next destination. City though would not be denied three years later when he was confirmed as Manuel Pellegrini’s successor while the latter was still in the post. Notably, the club said that the negotiations with Guardiola were "a recommencement of discussions that were curtailed in 2012", no doubt a nod to their excessive fluttering of eyelashes in Guardiola’s direction.

Vincent Kompany (L) must stay fit for a longer period this season to help Pep Guardiola take Manchester City to the title. AFP

Vincent Kompany (L) must stay fit for a longer period this season to help Pep Guardiola take Manchester City to the title. AFP

Football fans watching Manchester City would have surely wondered what the fuss about getting Pep Guardiola was all about after last season’s showings. Yes, Guardiola’s squad finished in third place with 78 points, well ahead of Pellegrini’s fourth-place finish with 66 points. But it is also true that the Chilean’s squad was in the neighbourhood of the top of the Premier League table until the 17th matchday when they lost 2-1 to Arsenal at the Emirates. He certainly can’t be faulted for a poor showing in the latter half of the season considering that the squad knew he was on the way out.

On the other hand, Guardiola’s troops hit the ground running with six straight swashbuckling victories in the league. The fans were purring in appreciation as well, but it all came apart. City wouldn’t occupy the top spot of the table after the 10th matchday. Guardiola also suffered embarrassing losses in the league, most notably to Everton and Leicester City. The latter defeat was particularly damning — City were 2-0 down inside four minutes against the struggling Foxes (and not the side which played like the title holders), and only two late goals salvaged the embarrassing scoreline and dignity (if any).

Manchester City had something to cheer in the cup competitions under Pellegrini as well: they finished first in their UEFA Champions league (UCL) group and progressed to the semi-finals for the first time ever in their history. In contrast, Guardiola’s team finished second (albeit, with an impressive 3-1 result against Barcelona), and limped out of the competition in the Round of 16 against Monaco. Pellegrini also had a League cup victory to show compared to Guardiola’s bare cupboard — the first time that the Spaniard had faced such a situation in his illustrious career so far. The man himself didn’t mince his words at his own side’s trophyless performance in his first season. It would have certainly been interesting to see his employers’ reaction had he not succeeded in securing fourth place in the league last season, but a late rally of four wins on the trot meant that his side nosed ahead of his rivals.

There are many managerial conundrums facing Guardiola this season. Last year, Joe Hart was shipped out to Torino after he didn’t fit the mould of the “sweeper keeper” that he favours. But the man who replaced him, Claudio Bravo, had a torrid time between the sticks with a series of high-profile errors. Also, Bravo moved from Barcelona after a tussle for the numero uno slot with Marc-Andre ter Stegen; how is he going to respond to an expensive 35 million GBP recruit in Ederson?

Full-backs were going to be another area of reinforcement with all the four moving on from the club. With more than 120 million GBP being spent on Kyle Walker, Danilo, and Benjamin Mendy this has been nothing short of major surgery, with one more hole of back-up fullback yet to be filled. Similarly, millions have been spent on finding Vincent Kompany’s central defensive partner/long term replacement, but various City managers have been none the wiser after expensive outlays on Nicolas Otamendi, Eliaquim Mangala (now back from loan) and John Stones. Given City’s troubles at the back, Guardiola will certainly fret over the 31-year-old’s fitness and hope that he will be able to feature in more than 10 league matches this season.

Fortunately, City have more riches in midfield and attack. Fernandinho was Guardiola’s man for every position, but eventually faded away as the season progressed. Perhaps he might be able to reclaim form with positional consistency. Delph and Fernando might look for greener pastures, but the club’s homegrown quota might have a say in the former’s transfer matter. Yaya Toure issued a mea culpa (or was it his agent?) and brought himself back into the reckoning, but at 34 he’s no spring chicken and cannot be relied upon to run the show in big games. Guardiola also rued the absence of Ilkay Gundogan due to injury but his record with it hasn’t been exactly a surprise until now. Overall, the club seems to be short of a central midfield enforcer which would shield the club’s soft underbelly in the big matches.

The club got rid of deadwood up front in the form of Nolito and Jesus Navas, and now seems to have two exciting prospects for every position in the final third. New signing Bernardo Silva joins Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva in attacking midfield; how he dovetails with the rest of the attacking talent like Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane is the big question. Then there is the matter of number 1 hitman and his protégé—Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus. Last season witnessed a curious relationship between the gaffer and the star striker, but the forward turned in his best season ever in terms of goals scored. A fascinating subplot lies in store when Jesus will threaten his spot up front once again, hopefully having shaken off his metatarsal injury. City may not be done with their business yet — one or two more players may be snapped up in the days to come depending on the availability and the transfer merry-go-round.

Overall, a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-4-1 formation might keep all of Guardiola’s personnel happy if he manages to go deep in all competitions; whether he chooses to do so or play a 1-2-whatever-3-1 formation is another question altogether.

In the pre-season, City have got impressive results against Real Madrid and Tottenham, but they all count for naught come the beginning of the new season. Next up is a friendly against West Ham with a certain Joe Hart in goal, before moving on to the rigours of the Premier League.  City don’t face a big team away till the 7th matchday, and a favourable run-in at the end of the season also augurs well. That is of course, provided, they don’t buckle in the big matches in December, and around the Round-of-16 and quarter finals ties of the UCL.

City supporters should expect them to challenge for the title against an upgraded Chelsea and a Jose-always-won-the-league-in-my-second-season-Mourinho, but the Premier League is full of surprises. Progress in the UCL depends on the draw (although even that didn’t help them last season), but a semi-final showing or a close quarter-final loss against a continental giant might be deemed satisfactory. With all the brouhaha surrounding Guardiola and the riches he’s been given to spend, a cup victory alone will not cut it with the fans. Needless to say, the next 10 months will be crucial for Guardiola and it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that his neck and reputation will be on the line if he repeats the previous season’s showing.

Updated Date: Aug 09, 2017 11:22 AM

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