Premier League 2018-19 preview: Manchester City

Football: Ton-up Manchester City not done and dusted

After winning last season's Premier League by 19 points, Manchester City show they are up to it again this season by lifting the FA Community Shield after defeating Chelsea 2-0 last Sunday.
After winning last season's Premier League by 19 points, Manchester City show they are up to it again this season by lifting the FA Community Shield after defeating Chelsea 2-0 last Sunday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

After 100-point season and with an eye on Europe, they may be first side to retain title since United in '09

LONDON • At the turn of next month, it will be a decade since owner Sheikh Mansour and his billions swept into the blue half of Manchester, bringing with them a Robinho-suffused tide of optimism and the promise that nothing would be the same again.

In the first instance, things were wearily familiar, with the explosion of optimism following his debut goal quickly tempered by three goals from a Chelsea team who, in that first season, finished 33 points clear of City.

"We are not going to do crazy stuff but it makes sense for us to build a dynasty," Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, installed as club chairman, said after the takeover had been formalised.

The process has been iterative but, last season, the blocks fell into place and, after such a jaw-dropping procession to their third title in seven years, it seems the first stage of City's project is complete.

Under Pep Guardiola, they have played football of a standard unparalleled in the Premier League era, give or take Arsenal's sides from the early 2000s, and sent records tumbling in the process.

The bar has been set dauntingly high, and the measure of the project's next phase will be City's ability to meet and outjump it.

It is a problem they have had before and that is why this season holds particular importance.

No one has won back-to-back league titles since Manchester United claimed their third in a row at the end of the 2008-09 season.

  • The fifth part of the build-up to the season starting on Friday

  • KEY GAMES

  • AUG 12

    Arsenal (away)

  • OCT 6

    Liverpool (a)

  • OCT 27

    Tottenham (a)

  • NOV 10

    Man United (home)

  • DEC 8

    Chelsea (a)

  • JAN 1

    Liverpool (h)

  • FEB 2

    Arsenal (h)

  • FEB 9

    Chelsea (h)

  • MARCH 16

    Man United (a)

  • APRIL 20

    Tottenham (h)

City have tried and failed twice so it was worth listening to Vincent Kompany when, early in March and with first place essentially in the bag, the captain sounded a warning.

"We have won two titles at this club and both times when we came back, there was an edge missing," he said. "That is why it is so difficult to retain titles. Only special teams can do it and we have to become that special team this time."

So how does one improve the side that has everything?

This has been a summer of relatively minor tweaks, and City will essentially go with the squad that was expensively assembled to Guardiola's satisfaction last term.

The exception is winger Riyad Mahrez, who arrived from Leicester City for £60 million (S$106 million) last month. Mahrez, the best creative player outside last term's top six clubs, does not obviously replace anyone in the starting XI but his versatility will prove as useful as his flair.

If he plays on the right, Raheem Sterling can be deployed through the middle, while Bernardo Silva, who is expected to step up after a patchy first year, could also be regularly used in the No. 10 role that might suit him best.

It is an addition that makes City more flexible and even trickier to second guess when Guardiola makes one of those quickfire, mid-game changes of shape that leave opponents flailing.

The manager may still bring in a central midfielder before the transfer deadline, having been foiled in his pursuit of Jorginho. There is no major reason to fret, but City do look curiously light there with Yaya Toure gone.

Fernandinho may also need nursing back after playing a part in Brazil's World Cup quarter-final exit, but llkay Gundogan will play a major role and Kevin de Bruyne's merits hardly need elucidating.

Reinforcements in the middle might be useful unless one of their academy products can step up, with Phil Foden highly thought of.

Conquering Europe, however, remains City's Abu Dhabi owners' burning ambition.

A first Champions League win would crown everything City have achieved so far and an improvement on last season's quarter-final finish appears obligatory if Guardiola is to avoid a renewal of the scrutiny that dogged parts of his first season at the Etihad.

The Spaniard himself could do with scratching the itch - seven years have passed since the second, and most recent, of his successes in Europe's premier competition.

Real Madrid's adaptation to a post-Cristiano Ronaldo era lends an obvious opportunity now and it is not a huge stretch to see Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool side posing Guardiola his biggest challenge both at home and abroad.

The likelihood is that City will break the spell and, at least, follow up last season's title with another, even if few expect another 19-point margin can be maintained.

Only once, in his final season at Barcelona when he felt burnt out, has Guardiola failed to win titles in consecutive seasons and City's aim is that he will not have to feel that sense of emptiness again.

"We're here to help build a sustainable club," Al-Mubarak said in a 2008 interview. "We're going to have a blast doing it."

He thought correctly then and the fun is unlikely to stop any time soon.

THE GUARDIAN


Talking points

1 A SECOND MAJOR SIGNING?

Manager Pep Guardiola is eyeing another midfielder to supplement Fernandinho, 33, ahead of tomorrow's transfer deadline - with the British media having a field day linking anyone from Julian Weigl, Thiago Alcantara, Mateo Kovacic, Miralem Pjanic to Mario Lemina.

If the expected move fails to materialise, he will hope to secure a work permit for Brazil Under-20 international Douglas Luiz, who spent last term on loan at LaLiga's Girona, while John Stones could also be moved higher up the pitch.

2 MENDY'S LIKE A NEW SIGNING

The return of cruciate ligament injury victim Benjamin Mendy will add another string to the attacking bow; he is an overlapping threat and can whip in a ball at pace. It will also allow Manchester City to revert to a back three, with Mendy and Kyle Walker as wing-backs, a tactic employed until the Frenchman's injury last September.

3 ACADEMY PAYING DIVIDENDS

In the Abu Dhabi era where transfer spending has crossed the billion-dollar mark, City fans have yet to see a youngster come through the ranks to command a regular starting place. The likes of Michael Johnson, Micah Richards and Daniel Sturridge have come and gone, and City have sold or moved on 24 youngsters this summer.

Phil Foden, 18, may be the one to buck the trend if he keeps up and improves on his Community Shield showing. The midfielder, labelled a "gift" by Guardiola, has a calmness on the ball that belies his age.


MANCHESTER CITY'S TRANSFER BALANCE

-£33.1m


PHOTO: REUTERS

KEY SIGNING: RIYAD MAHREZ

Winger (£60 million ; S$106 million): Arguably the most creative player outside of last season's top six clubs. While the 27-year-old Algerian (photo) is not guaranteed to displace Leroy Sane, the league's Young Player of the Year, he brings versatility with his ability to play on either flank. He also gives City another option from set pieces, while his pace means he could be unleashed on tiring defences off the bench.

KEY PLAYER IN

• Philippe Sandler, defender (PEC Zwolle, £2.6m)

KEY PLAYERS OUT

• Yaya Toure, midfielder (free agent)

• Pablo Maffeo, defender (Stuttgart, £8.1m)

• Olarenwaju Kayode, forward (Shakhtar Donetsk, £2.6m)

• Angelino, defender (PSV Eindhoven, £5m)

• Angus Gunn, goalkeeper (Southampton, £10m)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2018, with the headline 'Ton-up City not done and dusted'. Print Edition | Subscribe