This preview appears in the August 2021 edition of FourFourTwo.
Manchester City’s transformation a quarter of the way through last season was as impressive as it was surprising. In late November, Pep Guardiola’s stuttering side languished in 13th spot, seemingly out of the title reckoning. Even the Catalan’s staunchest admirers began to lose faith, his side a pale imitation of their brilliant former selves.
A record-breaking 21 consecutive wins across all competitions dramatically changed that narrative, with Ruben Dias and John Stones forming an imperious centre-back partnership. By the season’s end, City had kept clean sheets in 52 per cent of their fixtures. Upfront, a funky forwardless setup papered over the long-term loss of Sergio Aguero, a shedload of goals shared around the team. Ultimately, a third league crown in four years was secured at a canter.
The picture was just as bright in Europe. Following years of Champions League calamity and curse, the quarter-finals were comfortably negotiated before Paris Saint-Germain were dismantled with aplomb.
But then came that nightmare in the final; a third defeat within six weeks to Thomas Tuchel’s revived Chelsea. This one was utterly devastating.
The disappointment will surely impact City’s title defence, but to what extent? Amid murmurings of dressing-room discontent with Guardiola’s tactical experimentation in the final, Ilkay Gundogan spoke of his coach’s “special idea” in deploying him deeper, the German adding he “tried to make the best of it”.
It will help that most City players had Euro 2020 and Copa America commitments to distract them, not to mention the anticipated spending spree on one, or even both, of Harry Kane and Jack Grealish. The latter eventually arrived for a record-breaking £100m; a hungry newcomer that can bring City fresh impetus as Guardiola attempts to overhaul his own creation.
Concerns come further down the line. Should City again reach the business end of Europe’s most prestigious competition, Holy Grail analogies will emerge from every nook and cranny. The pressure to finally lift Ol’ Big Ears will be all-encompassing.
Domestically, Tuchel has established himself as the new kryptonite to Pep’s superpowers, taking over from Jurgen Klopp, who once possessed an unerring ability to make the greatest coach of his generation doubt himself. Expect more left-field team selections as City take on Chelsea in potential title-swayers.
But enough negativity. The club is back with a bang after an 18-month slump. One loss doesn’t change that, no matter its cost to their legacy.
The five-point plan
1 Reboot Raheem
Context is needed to evaluate Raheem Sterling’s dwindling club numbers. Granted, 24 direct goal involvements is barely par compared with past seasons, but City’s reconfigured system meant Gundogan’s 13 league goals represented the lowest top scorer return in a title-winning side since 2005. Electric at the Euros, Sterling remains vital to his team’s attacking endeavours.
2 Dominate derbies
Winning trophies will always be mind-blowing for the City faithful still unspoiled by success. Being top Manchester dogs, however, matters. That’s something Guardiola apparently doesn’t fully grasp, and whether it’s fielding a weakened team in a cup game or (regularly) being undone by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s counter-attacking mandate, the Catalan’s record in derbies – W6 D2 L6 – leaves a lot to be desired.
Foden opens the scoring for City with a tidy far post finish! 🙌What a lovely assist that was from Raheem Sterling 👏 pic.twitter.com/kbUeqbPpV9November 25, 2020
3 Don’t over-think big occasions
A pattern has emerged. Guardiola’s team, fully in their groove, play sensational football to reach a climactic fixture, whereupon the gaffer ‘does a Pep’ and contrives an unfamiliar, perplexing line-up. Deploying Gundogan in the lone holding role for a Champions League final is a move that will sadly go down in City folklore.
4 Stop giving away penalties
Every side gives away a few penalties across a season. To concede 10, the second-most in the league, as that division’s dominant side is nothing short of careless. A quarter of the Premier League goals conceded by City last season came from the spot, and gifting Leicester a hat-trick of them in a 5-2 loss at the Etihad was, frankly, a comedy of errors.
5 Start sharper
Obvious, but pertinent. In the title-winning campaigns of 2017/18 and 2018/19, City dropped just two and four points respectively from their opening 13 fixtures. In the two seasons that followed, that number shot up to 11 and 16. Last term’s catch-up was an anomaly, and a similarly sluggish start will cost City big.
FFT verdict: 1st
How do you improve on near-perfection? Pep & Co have the motivation to dominate yet again.
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