Any discussion of Manchester City ahead of the 2017-18 season will inevitably focus on Pep Guardiola. At times, a frustratingly erratic 2016-17 felt barely different to the back end of Manuel Pellegrini’s tenure, as the team had to battle for a top four slot and was turfed out of Europe by Monaco. This was not how the Pep revolution was intended to play out.
That when he arrived so much of his squad dated back to City’s last truly successful season in 2013-14 was likely part of the problem and finally, probably a year or two late, the club has started to adequately cut ties. The full back situation was the obvious place to start and the “thank you for your service” cards went out early. The entire Txiki Begiristain tenure hasn’t covered itself in glory for its recruitment, most often in defensive areas. From last season’s pick-ups, Leroy Sané and Gabriel Jesus have offered significant promise, but John Stones joined a long list of City defenders that have faltered either for systemic reasons or form struggles. Two more plans that didn’t quite come together were İlkay Gündoğan who will hopefully reappear one day and Claudio Bravo already appears replaced.
It all adds up to more pressure for season two of Guardiola’s reign. A mere top four slot and a trophy free season wasn’t good enough. That’s not what he’s here for and it will have no doubt frustrated him to fail to become dominant. It will not be easy in the modern Premier League to achieve that and expectations will always be high, but once more they start favourites for the title. Is there anything in the metrics that suggests they are particularly well set to compete? Let’s find out.
What to build upon?
Life at previous superclubs was pretty comfortable for Guardiola. While at Bayern and Barcelona, the general superiority over the vast majority of teams in their leagues meant super positive metrics and usually a slab of positive variance on top. His last season at Bayern was subtly different. Super positive metrics, but positive variance only in defence. Season one at Man City built on this theme; the big indicator and most positive reflection was that expected goals ranked the team first at both ends of the pitch. Yet the attacking end got nothing in the way of positive variance and the defensive end got a large negative shunt. When the structural numbers are as strong as they are it’s likely not to be a problem, but for now it’s a small quirk.
In particular the mid season misery between early December and mid-January was hugely costly. During that eight game period, the team went 4-0-4 and lost games against rivals Chelsea and Liverpool. That kind of run can happen to any team, but the fashion in which they shipped goals for fun was what made it unique. Fourteen goals were conceded compared to an expectation of below seven, and by the end, having saved just eight of 22 shots on target and faced a series of shots flying in from broadly the same position on the pitch, Claudio Bravo’s reputation was in shreds, with John Stones’ not too far behind:
Later, the team appeared to address this key vulnerability, so much so that they failed to concede a further goal in the league from that specific wide position but it represented a broader issue; Guardiola was learning about the limitations of his team and his squad on the fly. What they couldn’t do became apparent through the tough losses, most of which occurred during this period. Across the rest of the season, there were also five home draws against lesser opposition in which City totally dominated the shot count. Points lost here, there and everywhere, and no doubt extremely frustrating for fans, players and manager alike. In fact they outshot their opposition in every game bar one (Tottenham away) and that the structure of these metrics held up against this spiritual goading is largely why the team is once more favourite to succeed in the league this year.
The talent they possess is at least the equal of any team in the league and their squad depth could well be best. Kevin De Bruyne’s 2016-17 season was quietly about as good as it gets for a creative attacking midfielder, his 18 assists were backed up by extremely strong expected numbers, and a resurgent Yaya Touré and David Silva continue to offer skillsets that few others do well into their dotage. Sergio Agüero was slightly flat as far as goals versus expectation, but still contributed plenty while the tantalising prospect of how Gabriel Jesus is incorporated in his first full season whets the appetite. Perhaps it’s too early to be confident about this, but it feels like it’s been some time since a potential world star landed in the league so early in their career. Could he fit the bill?
Bravo looks to have been replaced quickly by Ederson, who as a minimum represents the future of the position for City and Bernardo Silva comes in to compete in the attacking corps. Neither was cheap, but both look solid enough candidates to slot into the side. The big stories really surrounded the £130million of investment in full backs with Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo arriving. While that princely sum appears excessive at first glance, the simple truth is that despite spending fairly freely in recent seasons, both full back positions had been neglected for far too long. Seeing a club with the wealth of City splashing out on problem positions makes good sense and the early read is that they have done well.
At times last season, City’s full back and defensive issues made it look as though they were playing with ten men when defending. Anyone who saw the pre-season game against Tottenham will have quickly got the idea that rampaging full backs are a fun idea and in Walker and Danilo, they’ve two players well equipped to entertain in that manner. From apparently playing with ten men, the move to non-geriatric full backs gives the appearance of playing with twelve, a feature some lesser teams are likely to endure during the forthcoming season. Mendy, so lethal a crosser for Monaco last season can easily slot in on the left side and Danilo has the versatility to cover either flank and perhaps has a point to prove after a mixed time in Madrid. Three new full backs looks like problem solved and the tearful farewell to Aleksandr Kolorov has become a footnote to the old order.
There remains the slight hope that Guardiola pushes all his chips into the centre of the table and brings in an Alexis Sánchez or suchlike, but the squad finally looks as though it is built to withstand more than just the current season. The veterans that now remain are the best of the successful era (David Silva, Agüero, Touré, Fernandinho and Kompany)–problems that needed to be solved mostly have been and top tier young talent has been secured to complement and enhance.
What to expect?
As Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side took the spoils last season, the much heralded battle between Guardiola and Jose Mourinho’s new cross-town teams failed to really materialise. Now both find themselves in year two with a distinct mandate that their league results need to improve while also competing in Europe. Anything less than fighting long and hard for the title will be considered failure for both and City in particular look well set to contend.
Last year’s Racing Post preview featured a majority of bookies reps picking out Chelsea as most likely winners; this year the same shrewd bunch casts a majority vote for City. They are short priced favourites but even a small bounce forward in their metric variance could be enough for them to find the eight to ten points they likely need to be bang there. The big question will remain in defence, and Ederson will not want to be left isolated as Bravo was so frequently last season. Nobody will enjoy facing City’s attack and there will be games where they steamroller weaker sides. Anything less than contending will mean that something has veered drastically off course and is hard to foresee. This league may well be tough, but City look to have the right blend to finally deliver on the expectation of every season since they last won the title in 2013-14.
Surely they won’t fail again?