On February 21, 2017, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City had just completed a fantastic comeback against AS Monaco. They led the game after some superb work by Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, but then trailed after Radamel Falcao and the young Kylian Mbappe finished two superb chances, and battled back to eventually take a 5-3 lead against Monaco. The attack was great; the defense – not so much. Pep came out afterwards and said, ‘”They will attack more and more, and we have to defend better. We are not going to defend that result. We have to score goals. If we don’t score a goal in Monaco, we will be eliminated.” Monaco had three away goals for their efforts in Manchester, and Pep’s defense, which had leaked goals all throughout the campaign in league play as well, was still susceptible and had identified that early on.
Unfortunately, whatever lead City had from the first leg quickly disappeared at the end of the Round of 16, and Pep Guardiola failed to reach the semifinals of the tournament for the first time in his career. On the other end of things, his side’s performance in the English Premier League was also shaky. Apart from the first six weeks in which they won every game, City was struggling to maintain pace with runaway leaders Chelsea, and runners-up Tottenham. All of a sudden, Pep had found himself in a precarious situation, and one he had not experienced since the spring of 2012, in his last season with FC Barcelona. The prospect of his first trophy-less season had begun to become reality for Pep, and in the May of 2017, it indeed became a reality. City finished the season without any silverware.
Such a season was never part of the plan for City Football Group, nor was it a part of the plan for Pep when he joined. His impeccable track record in Spain and Germany guaranteed success, and thus the failure to attain any significant silverware in 2017 obviously did not sit well with either party. For Pep especially, this season was hard to swallow. The displeasure of the season could be seen as soon as the season ended, and in June, many veteran players made their way out of City. Players who had won the Premiership in 2014 like Pablo Zabaleta, Willy Caballero, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna and Jesus Navas were all let go. In came Bernardo Silva, Kyle Walker, Ederson, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo. City’s business was quick and efficient, but also expensive. Walker and Mendy both broke the record for the most expensive defender signed, a record previously held by City’s own John Stones. Ederson also broke Gianluigi Buffon’s record transfer for a goalkeeper. However expensive all these moves were, they displayed Pep’s intent.
One year after his arrival at City, Pep now has a squad that he can truly call his own. And as such, Manchester City now have a team that should be among the favorites for winning the Premier League. The main difference is the presence of quality, young fullbacks. Over the course of last season, both Walker and Mendy have grown into players that can stretch the width of the pitch, the way that Pep initially wanted to. Last season, with Kolarov paired with Sagna or Zabaleta, he opted to overload the midfield with these fullbacks. This placed more of an emphasis on the wingers to provide width. But now, having fullbacks that can theoretically do both, the responsibility of the wingers should be more focused on creating alongside the midfield while the fullbacks stretch the play. Danilo also becomes an important addition due to his ability to play on both sides of the pitch. While he is not the best option as a starting left-back, he can provide as a more than competent backup for Mendy and Walker simultaneously.
With younger, fresher fullbacks next to them, Otamendi and Stones should be able to perform much better this upcoming season. City’s defense leaked many goals last season due to the wings being overloaded by opponents. Otamendi was superb at times last season, but also made some careless errors. He had never played on a team that focused on possession as much as Pep Guardiola does. Both in Spain and Portugal, the teams he played on relied on a more classical approach to football. At times, it was end to end, and this became something that Argentina excelled at. As last season wore on, his concentration improved and the errors decreased. In Stones, Pep has a center back with the qualities of a midfielder. As seen in his time at Everton and his first season in Manchester, Stones can distribute the ball in between lines, read plays and initiate attacks. Now, with two fullbacks like Walker and Mendy, his job becomes a lot easier this season. Last season, there a lot of uncertainty existed regarding Stones’ play. He struggled many times to move the ball quickly and read danger. At the age of 22 and at a price tag of nearly £50 million on his head, it was safe to say that the pressure got to him. Now, with a season under his belt and with the guidance of Pep Guardiola, the 2017/18 season will be the season that he can truly start reaching his potential. With Ederson behind them, the center back pairing can excel knowing that they have a pair of solid hands to keep them alive. While Claudio Bravo was theoretically a quality purchase (given that he was an important fixture in a Barcelona squad that won back to back La Liga titles), he appeared shaky in England. The world-class keeper in Spain turned into a flop, and as the season wore on, he lost confidence and was dropped for Willy Caballero. This lack of belief and instability in a goalkeeper rubs off on those in front of him, which happened several times throughout the season.
City’s midfield never really had any problems last season. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva continued the stellar performances that they displayed in Manuel Pellegrini’s final season. They were fluid together, and under Pep, they managed to tear through any defense in front of them. De Bruyne managed to score five times and recorded 18 assists. Silva also provided a much-needed control for the team throughout the season, and scored four times and got seven assists. Both players are world-class. While Silva is getting a little older (turning 32 later this season), his quality will be vital for City in 2018. De Bruyne is arguably the best attacking midfielder in the game at the moment. His rise has been spectacular and he will only continue in this trajectory. İlkay Gündoğan is another name that will be important for City. When he joined from Borussia Dortmund, he had a fantastic start. He controlled play much like we saw Xavi do for Pep’s Barcelona side. He made deep runs to help set up and score goals, and his experience in Europe was vital. His injury setback, though, had a deep impact on City’s squad. Yaya Toure had to come in and fill the role, which he did spectacularly last season. Nonetheless, the team lost an important midfield figure. This season, if he stays fit alongside Toure, Gündoğan can provide a calmness in the midfield, while helping to create and help take the load off of De Bruyne and Silva. Toure will most likely be playing his last season at City. After a turbulent start to the season with some personal issues between himself and the manager, Toure apologized and took control of a midfield that needed his experience. He should be able to do the same this season but with a more stable back line behind him, and his responsibility will be more focused on maintaining control – something he’s always excelled at.
City’s attack has always been fluid, even when they struggled last season. Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling both grew into their roles last season. They started out a little timid, but as the season wore on, they stretched play like Guardiola wanted them to, and finished off several chances. However, most likely due to their age (Sane is 21 and Sterling is 22), they were largely inconsistent throughout the season. The understanding of what Pep wanted from them was a little lost, as was the case for the whole team. In preseason play early this season, both looked in sync with the rest of the team. For the upcoming season, both will have a better knowledge of what is expected of them, and with more consistent performances, their roles will help City lift the title. Sergio Agüero once again provides Pep with a world class finisher. While he also struggled with inconsistency, his performances have always helped the team. His ability to finish is unparalleled in the Premier League. His chemistry with the young Gabriel Jesus is also growing. Jesus only had a half season to acclimate to the Premier League, but when he had the chance, he took to England like fish in water. He was once again promising in preseason, and with Agüero by his side. He should continue to grow and eventually become a world-class striker himself.
The one decision that Pep has made this summer that probably will most likely help him out the most is the addition of Bernardo Silva. Silva provides City with depth on the wings and in the middle. Silva was an important cog in Monaco’s system last season that took them to the Champions League semifinals. He can function both as a ball carrier and as a creator, being able to play through the center of the wing. He can almost play as a younger, less talented version of Messi for Pep. His versatility across both the forward line and the midfield can help Pep experiment with a false-nine system like in Barcelona, or the 4-1-4-1 he used in Munich. In both of these systems, Pep can replicate the great success that he had in Germany and Spain, and gives him the tactical variation that he greatly needed last season. The failures of Guardiola last season were attributed to him underestimating the Premier League. However, it seems as though this time last season, Pep overestimated the squad he had available. There were too many aging players who did not fit his plan, but he overlooked it and ultimately paid for it. This summer though, he maneuvered efficiently, cutting out the deadwood and making purchases that helped him implement his preferred playing style. And in doing so, the Premier League might see one of the most stacked teams assembled in recent history, and one that should go on and win the league title, and perhaps more this coming season, and in the future.