Season Preview: Manchester City
Dethroned Premier League champions Manchester City will begin the season with a team almost identical to the one they campaigned with in 2014/15. Instead of making multiple moves to bolster a team that in the end meekly surrendered their Premier league title they have essentially rested their hopes on 20-year-old Raheem Sterling being the man to put them over the line.
Sterling found (and put) himself in an untenable position in Liverpool, and City now have their man. They have gotten a considerable upgrade on Jesús Navas but their weakest areas remain so. Do they have enough ammunition and balance to challenge teams that have improved, at least on paper?
Last season the killer blow was dealt by an underperforming and disjointed defense consisting of two of three defenders struggling to play together and having individually poor seasons. The trio of Kompany, Demichelis and Mangala all struggled to various degrees and ultimately their title challenge started and ended there. Trusting that same lineup would probably be foolhardy and even fantastical in its thinking. The 2013/14 Champions scored all of 102 goals while conceding 37 and it was the 13 goals fewer they conceded than runners up Liverpool that earned them the title. Then it was two of the best attacking teams in league history in a shootout; but it was defensive solidity that mattered most this year and last. Manchester City in contrast faltered in games on the road in 2014/15 losing five times, three of which were to Burnley, Crystal Palace and West Ham United. Poor away form signalled the death of a title challenge for City who if not for a late season resurgence led by the talismanic Sergio Agüero would have been the Manchester club in a Champions league playoff.
Now, looking at City in each area of the pitch I can see where there are genuine concerns for which I am not sure Sterling alone can counteract. In defense lies the main worry as Manuel Pellegrini can’t seem to find a centre back pairing to get the job done, especially on their travels. Demichelis is shaky more often than not and as much as this is so, Eliaquim Mangala probably inspires even less confidence. Mangala and his reading of the game leaves a lot to be desired meaning City are crying out for a ‘smart’ defender. The one seemingly world-class central defender at the club, Kompany, just had a poor season by his standards where his error prone, poor positioning side showed itself too often and cost the club at crucial times. What’s there is a recipe for a side which will falter in important moments. Even the preseason evokes worry after a half where they were put to the sword against Stuttgart for all of four goals in a display that brought back memories of some of the sham defending last season.
The answer may lie in City’s Academy product Jason Denayer, a 20-year-old Belgian international. From all indications he will be promoted to the first team squad. He is described as being comfortable on the ball and on watching him in pre-season, he seems to be able to strike workable partnerships with the others. It will always be a gamble to promote a 20-year-old to play in the centre of defense but he may be the partner needed for Demichelis, Mangala or an ageing Kompany. Demichelis’ lack of pace is his Achilles heel while Mangala is prone to lapses in concentration and poor ball distribution. Denayer also possesses the physicality that is so valued in the high-octane Premier league; and that combined with his footballing abilities make him a fine prospect. His strengths appear suited to neutralising the weaknesses of his central defensive counterparts. That looks like more healthy competition and with the reality that Demichelis and Mangala made for a better pairing than any involving Kompany, City may have the competition for places needed to inspire better performances.
Perhaps of lesser concern is the fullback situation. City cannot rest on their laurels here as Zabaleta did not look like quite the same player who was amongst the very best in England and had his worst season in a City shirt. Then again, that could be said of a few. His backup and competition, Bacary Sagna still does not impress me when attacking as his crossing looks like some of the 81 Manchester United swung in that fateful day. It can’t be that bad but hyperbole aside, City do not look as blessed as in previous years at right fullback. On the left side, there is the experienced guard of Kolarov and Clichy. Kolarov is excellent on set pieces and in attack in general but as evidenced by their rotation merry go round last season neither is good enough to be day to day. This is not simply rotation; they had to be managed. Nevertheless, it gets better as we go further up the pitch.
In central midfield, once an area of little concern, City now have a seemingly declining Yaya Touré and underperforming almost identically named Fernando and Fernandinho. City’s midfield has failed to command in big games beyond the usual scenario in the Champions League, and with United, Arsenal and Chelsea all having formidable midfield lineups, City must again be wary. The possibility of them being overrun by top four teams is very real and the declining form of Touré makes it even more worrying. Here they have made an £8 million signing in England international Fabian Delph and Pellegrini will be hoping that his impact is immediately felt and he will be an upgrade. As it stands, he will miss a month with a hamstring injury and upon his return it appears he will jostle with the Fers for the other spot alongside Touré who could be nearing his end as a really top class midfielder.
Delph looks to be a like for like replacement for James Milner. Able to play at least three positions in midfield, he brings versatility and can fill in when a regular’s form dips.
City’s strongest area has to be in attacking positions where they have within their ranks Agüero, David Silva, Samir Nasri, Jesus Navas, Wilfried Bony, and the £49 million man, Raheem Sterling. Agüero, if fit, will be the leading goal scorer unless Harry Kane or Diego Costa can conjure a truly special season. In him City have a dependable world-class striker. Now, in seasons past, the wizard of a midfielder Silva and Navas from wide positions has fed him the bulk of chances. He also does his own creating and finishing when in the mood to prove how good he is. In Sterling he has a lightning quick player who can create at pace and contribute his share of goals. The combination of this trio is especially exciting and it could take all three players to another level. Combine the dribbling at pace, and improving finishing of Sterling with the artistry of Silva in controlling attacking intensity and pace, and the ruthless finishing and bursts of pace that Kun Agüero brings and the City reincarnation of the SAS might just rival the Liverpool duo.
Stefan Jovetić has left the club and Edin Džeko will follow him out. That leaves two strikers plus the third new signing, Patrick Roberts. He is viewed as being promising but won’t be a major contributor this season. As always, so much depends on Agüero and if he doesn’t fire then City could be on the back foot pretty quickly with a Wilfried Bony who struggled last season in a City shirt the only real option.
I get the impression that Pellegrini, in what is possibly his last season at the club, is not being given resources to make a massive overhaul and they might wait on a Mr Pep Guardiola to impart his vision on the club. This could be largely contingent on their trophy haul this term. City don’t want to be forced to outscore opponents too often in what is expected to be an improved league at the top and a close title race. It failed Liverpool at the death the last time City won and the question on every City supporter’s mind is whether their one major signing this summer was indeed a Sterling enough one.