Perhaps no other statement summed up Pep Guardiola’s last season more than the one he made ahead of an all-important Champions League last-16 clash against Monaco. Manchester City led 5-3 from the first leg at home. Ahead of the away tie, the gaffer felt even that wasn’t enough.
“Take the ball and attack as much as possible is the only way I know to beat this type of team,” Guardiola had said. “If one team scores 123 goals and you are thinking about only defending for 90 minutes because we won one game 5-3, you kill yourself.”
City went on to lose the second leg 3-1 and, with it, the tie. It epitomised their season completely – a runaway train when in the mood, but more often than not, lacking steel and prone to derail when adversity approached.
A third-place finish in the league and no silverware could have hardly been what City chairperson Khaldoon Al Mubarak and their legion of fans expected when Guardiola sauntered into the Etihad Stadium last year. Here he was, in flesh, the saviour to direct the team to take what they regarded as their rightful place along Europe’s elite.
But even the best-laid plans go awry. After a honeymoon period at the beginning of the season where they won their first six Premier League matches and 10 consecutively in all competitions, City fell off the precipice and never managed to find a way back. Amidst a wave of defensive fragility, Guardiola-ian rigidity often bordering on indecisiveness and the entire Joe Hart-Claudio Bravio fiasco, City settled on a third-place finish, licking their wounds.
Splurging on the defence
This season, the 46-year-old has shown early signs that while he may not completely abandon his attack-at-all-costs attitude, he may be a little more flexible. The arrival of the 23-year-old Ederson from Benfica for €40 million gives him more stability for keeping options but more importantly, he has completely redesigned the back-four which was an Achilles heel last season.
Defenders Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksander Kolarov are no longer with the team and the Citizens have spent heavily on bringing in replacements that will suit the Guardiola style of play. Kyle Walker, who signed for City in a £53 million deal from Tottenham Hotspur and Benjamin Mendy, who signed for £52 million from Monaco, will shore up the left-back and right-back positions and hopefully give Guardiola the sort of impetus he wants and needs. The 26-year-old Danilo, who signed from Real Madrid for £26.5 million and can play either as a full-back or in defensive midfield, can also pitch in whenever required.
However, much focus will also be on Vincent Kompany and his fitness. In full flow, he is the captain City desperately needs but the problem is he spends most of his time on the injury list rather than on the field. For City to bounce back, Kompany’s injury and form, along with John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi’s performances, will be crucial.
Riches at front
If the issues at the back are sorted, Manchester City and Guardiola will heave a huge sigh of relief as half their job will be done. Their attacking riches are the envy of everyone else in the league and if they can put on a more consistent display through the season, few will bet against more silverware coming their way.
A front five of Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus is a nightmare for most opposition defences. Then there’s the newcomer Bernardo Silva to contend with, as well. On paper, this is a lethal attacking force which can steamroll any team in the world. Kevin de Bruyne was one of City’s best playmakers last season controlling their attack beautifully in some of their best results. This season needs an encore, but something more than that – clinical ability in front.
One thing’s for sure. Guardiola can’t afford another silverware-less season. Nor can Manchester City after spending close to £200 million this summer.
1st: If this team can start playing together, no one can stop them from going to the top. And after first season’s disappointment, Guardiola will be doubly determined to make that happen