Guardian writers’ predicted position 1st (NB: this is not necessarily Jamie Jackson’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position 3rd
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker) 15-8
Pep Guardiola’s challenge can be crystallised into a simple question: will the manager allow Manchester City to defend this season?
The manager endured an underwhelming first campaign in English football so focus now centres on how his mistakes will be addressed. The prime error was an unbending emphasis on attack that meant Guardiola expected all opposition to be snuffed out via ball retention and the notion City should score more no matter how many were conceded.
It meant a lack of cohesion at the back that led to crucial defeats. December’s consecutive losses to Chelsea (3-1) and Leicester City (4-2), which first sounded the alarm, are two illustrations. City managed only 12 clean sheets, five behind the division’s best total, achieved by Manchester United and Tottenham.
Guardiola’s mantra also led to City being knocked out of the Champions League at Monaco following an embarrassing last-16 second leg. His side arrived in the principality in prime position thanks to their 5-3 win in the first leg. Yet the pre-match press conference featured Guardiola’s bizarre assertion City would be “killed” if they failed to score. A concession his powder-puff defence could not be trusted proved to be prescient. City lost 3-1, were eliminated on away goals, and the head coach’s stubbornness was further illuminated by the (again bizarre) declaration that his forwards did not score enough, despite doing so six times in the tie.
Fast forward to the summer and Guardiola has moved to solve his problems at goalkeeper and full-back yet there is still an issue in central defence.
The replacement of Joe Hart by Claudio Bravo, which subsequently backfired, has been addressed in the £34.7m signing of Benfica’s Ederson. Kyle Walker, a right-back, has arrived from Tottenham for an initial £45m, Monaco’s left-back Benjamin Mendy for around £52m and the utility player Danilo, who can operate as either a full-back or in defensive midfield, for £26.5m from Real Madrid.
As it stands, only the centre-backs Vincent Kompany and John Stones/Nicolás Otamendi remain from last season’s defensive line. Given the former’s history of injury and the other two’s thus far unconvincing City careers, there is a need to strengthen in the position. Beyond the trio Guardiola has only the untested 19-year-old Tosin Adarabioyo and the unwanted Jason Denayer and Eliaquim Mangala, following Aleksandar Kolarov’s departure for Roma. City were previously interested in Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk but it is understood they have, for the moment, stepped back because of a £60m-plus valuation. Real Sociedad’s Iñigo Martínez, who has a reported €30m (£27.1m) release clause, is one alternative being considered.
Yet despite the £156.2m spend to rebuild the defence, the question remains: how much of the nitty-gritty of preventing goals will City’s rearguard be able to do? This is the man who, following the reverse at Leicester, asked: “What are tackles?” His attack-at-all-costs philosophy will demand the pace of Walker and Mendy be harnessed by bombing into the opposition’s half, which will leave City open to counterattacks, as it did against Leicester, Chelsea, Monaco, and many other opponents during 2016-17.
Danilo can fill in as a holding player but is no specialist, so beyond Fernandinho City are light in the position, as Guardiola’s other headline buy was the Monaco wide man Bernardo Silva for £43.6m.
To splurge £199.8m in the window and not add a high-end defensive midfielder further points to Guardiola’s priorities. In all his investment in 12 months runs to at least £362.85m, with Leroy Sané (£37m), Stones (£47.5m), Gabriel Jesus (£27m), Nolito (£13.9m), Ilkay Gündogan (£20m), and Bravo (£13.75m) his other major acquisitions. If Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez – who remains a target – arrives, then Real’s record £218m transfer spree of 2009 will be eclipsed, and Guardiola would break the quarter-of-a-billion-pound barrier.
Whatever the end total, he has to deliver. It is the simple, non-negotiable bottom line. What impressed last year about was Guardiola’s determination to challenge himself by moving from a comfort zone at Bayern Munich to the alien environment of English football.
Less admirable was the crippling tactical inflexibility of his attacking ethos. It meant Guardiola ended the season with no silverware for the club, a first blank of his gilded managerial career, as City were knocked out of the EFL Cup by Manchester United in October and fell in the FA Cup semi-finals to Arsenal.
In his end-of–year assessment of Guardiola, the chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, tried to take the long view. Yet the overriding sense was of disappointment. “There’s nothing that annoys me more than people either calling me or sending me a message congratulating me on third place,” Mubarak said. “My answer was pretty standard to everyone: ‘Don’t congratulate me on getting third, there’s nothing to congratulate, only congratulate me if we win the league.’ So, this is not the ambition, not at all. There’s nothing to celebrate.”
The attempt at balance came in his excitement at how “Pep has taken the squad and really started a process of going through that natural cycle of development”.
No great leap is required to conclude another trophy-less return will be viewed more coldly and could lead to Guardiola’s axing; particularly if by next May City have failed again to be in serious contention for a third Premier League crown and have proved dismal in the Champions League once more.
A scan of Guardiola’s strongest XI suggests City should rate themselves a serious proposition. A 4-2-3-1 might read: Ederson; Walker, Kompany, Stones, Mendy; Fernandinho, Gündogan (when fit); B Silva, D Silva, De Bruyne; Jesus. That side has no room for Danilo, Raheem Sterling, Yaya Touré, Sané, or Sergio Agüero. It points to Guardiola’s attacking riches, and his need to buy at centre-back.
City’s opening 10 league outings are Brighton & Hove Albion (away), Everton (home), Bournemouth (a), Liverpool (h), Watford (a), Crystal Palace (h), Chelsea (a), Stoke City (h), Burnley (h), and West Bromwich Albion (a). This will take Guardiola and his men to the end of October. Then, a gauge of how the new signings are gelling will be available and, crucially, how City’s defence may hold up amid the rigours of a long season, here and on the continent. On this the club’s, and Guardiola’s, fortunes rest.
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