Guardian writers’ predicted position: 2nd (NB: this is not necessarily Paul Wilson’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: 4th
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 5-2
Here it is then, the season Manchester City have been waiting for so patiently. It has long been obvious, certainly since 2012 when the club imported Barcelona’s infrastructure in Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain (chief executive and sporting director respectively), that the ultimate aim was to bring in Pep Guardiola as well and reproduce some of the Catalans’ sparkling success in the north-west of England.
There was nothing wrong with that ambitious plan in 2012, except that it took four years to bring it to fruition due to Guardiola making Germany his first port of call following his year out after stepping down from Barcelona. There was nothing wrong with his decision to join Bayern Munich either, except Jupp Heynckes’s parting legacy was to complete the first German treble, leaving the incoming coach with little to improve. Guardiola did not exactly fail in Bavaria – most clubs and coaches would be happy with three consecutive league titles and three appearances in Champions League semi-finals – though while several reliable witnesses have testified to the beneficial effect he had on the team he did not enhance his reputation to the extent expected.
Three consecutive Champions League semi-finals can be construed as a series of missed opportunities, after all, especially for a coach hired on the back of his peerless achievements in the competition with Barcelona. The three Bundesliga titles were real enough, but Guardiola took over a very strong team in a league that tends to be dominated by a small number of clubs, with Bayern in particular frequently able to undermine rivals by picking off their best players. If you wanted to make a harsh assessment of Guardiola’s three years in Germany it could be said, indeed is being said, that he was unable to move the club significantly forward. Domestic titles are almost a minimum requirement for the club under present conditions, but if the idea was for Guardiola’s genius would rub off to the extent of taking Bayern to the level of Barcelona or Real Madrid it did not happen.
Again, Heynckes had given his successor a lot to live up to. When Bayern reached the Champions League final in 2013 they did so by removing Barcelona at the semi-final stage by an aggregate score of 7-0. Guardiola’s Bayern went out 5-0 on aggregate to Real Madrid at the same stage a year later, lost 5-3 to Barcelona the following season, and though they were only beaten by a single away goal in this year’s competition, it was Atlético Madrid who made the final.
So the show moves to the Premier League, with Guardiola tasked with proving his worth in circumstances difficult to envisage four years ago. Whereas City had originally hoped to make a statement and steal a march on their rivals by appointing the most revered coach in the business, now it could be argued that Guardiola might not even be the best manager in Manchester. He is certainly not the only treble winner. This is not the place for a discussion of Guardiola’s merits over those of José Mourinho – the forthcoming season should be helpful in that regard in any case – but it seems safe to say that Manchester United will not be stumbling about in the dark any longer under present management. The clueless, beached-whale impression they have been amusing us with since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped aside can be consigned to history, along with any notions of transitional periods or three-year plans.
As Mourinho deftly showed by nipping into England training to reassure Wayne Rooney of his value as a striker before the team left for France, the new manager does not work like that. Should Mourinho land Paul Pogba for the anticipated sum of around £100m it will be a statement of intent greater than anyone else has managed this summer, and the immediate advantage the United manager has over his new (old) rival is that he knows the Premier League inside out. Mourinho has won titles in England, one as recently as two years ago. Guardiola comes to Manchester at a time when United supporters are more confident and bullish about their prospects than they have been for the best part of a decade, and it is not only his new home city that the manager has to worry about. Liverpool and Tottenham feel they have the right manager and players to mount a title challenge, and although Arsenal never quite seem to feel the same way, they at least have the theoretical financial capacity to improve their squad and build on last season’s second place finish. Antonio Conte, like Guardiola, will need time to find his feet in a new league, though it is unlikely with a coach of his pedigree that Chelsea will be as far off the pace as they were last season.
On the positive side, City still have the eminently watchable Kevin De Bruyne to build a side around, will always carry a goal threat as long as Sergio Agüero is fit, have picked up Ilkay Gündogan, Leroy Sané and Nolito to increase their midfield options (Gabriel Jesus will initially be loaned back to Palmeiras) and may be about to win the race, actually more of a slow-motion event, to sign John Stones.
Concerns for Guardiola include Vincent Kompany’s uncertain fitness and the effect the captain’s absences often have on the team, Joe Hart’s unconvincing performances for England at Euro 16 and the thorny problem of getting the best out of Raheem Sterling. Mildly interesting issues for fans to debate begin with whether Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolás Otamendi have any future at the heart of a Guardiola defence, and end with several questions that needs answering in attack. Will there be scope for Kelechi Iheanacho to build on his promising breakthrough last season, is Wilfried Bony going to get a look-in, and how much patience will Guardiola show with the speedy but inevitably disappointing Jesús Navas?
Perhaps what matters most in terms of setting the mood for the new season is what happens to Yaya Touré and David Silva, two stalwarts who have been around since the Roberto Mancini days. Touré is in the final year of his contract and, at 33, not the influence he once was, though Guardiola knows him from Barcelona and has convinced him he can have a positive role. Whether that means on the pitch or off it is unclear, though the City midfield is becoming quite a congested area. Silva, three years younger, is presumably a part of Guardiola’s plans – such a clever player certainly ought to be– yet there were times under Manuel Pellegrini when City ran out of ideas and inspiration even with the Spain international on the pitch. It seems a little odd to talk of potential in a 30-year-old, though there was a feeling in the last couple of seasons that City were not managing to make the most of Silva’s ability. If Guardiola can do that, find him a role that does not replicate what De Bruyne is doing, City’s attacking options should be second to none, though first and foremost they need to keep their somewhat fragile frontline fit for the greater part of the season.
Last season City finished fourth and won the Capital One Cup, which was just about enough to allow Pellegrini an honourable discharge but plainly not the sort of return a club with so much money and such lofty ambitions was looking for. City now have their dream manager for at least three seasons, unfortunately coinciding with Manchester United, Liverpool and a few others picking up their dream managers as well. The Premier League in general, and Manchester in particular, should see more than its usual share of excitement this season, though it should be remembered that what initially recommended Guardiola to the club was the way his Barcelona side dominated in Europe. City have won the Premier League a couple of times now, and would not exactly disdain a few more titles, but the overall plan is to succeed in the Champions League. They reached the semi-finals last season, a real achievement, no matter what the financial backing, for a club that arrived in the competition only five years ago. Yet though they only conceded one goal over two legs against Real Madrid, City appeared a side at full stretch, at the limit of their ability and self-belief.
Guardiola’s main task will be to change that, to make City look and feel like they belong in the European elite. Given that they still have to survive a qualifying round to take part in this season’s event, that is quite a tall order, and it may be that domestic spats with Mourinho and Manchester bragging rights have to be filed under the heading of distractions. Guardiola probably is capable of taking City to the next level, but first he must work out what he wants that level to be. This season more than any other season, it would be asking a lot of a coach in a new country to progress on two fronts. Although improving on Pellegrini’s last season is clearly possible, the outgoing manager not having set the bar all that high, City winning something big is unlikely to happen without careful planning and prioritisation. Perhaps four years of careful planning and prioritisation.
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