- Pep Guardiola's side has everything it needs to repeat as champion this season. City's season could well be defined by its success (or lack thereof) in the Champions League, a tournament that has weighed heavily on the manager in recent seasons.
Manchester City went into the 1937-38 season as defending champion. It finished 21st out of 22 teams and was relegated. No subsequent league title defense has been quite that bad, but City does has a habit of flopping in the season after winning the league, something that undermined both Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini. This is the fifth time City goes into a season as defending champion; it has never before retained the league.
Pep Guardiola, by contrast, is a serial winner. His first three seasons as coach of Barcelona brought three league titles, as did his first three seasons as coach of Bayern Munich. Until he has won a hat-trick, he has never not retained a league title. It’s not such a foregone conclusion as it often seemed in the Bundesliga, but City is a strong favorite this season.
Last season, City became the first Premier League side to amass 100 points and finished 19 points clear of second-place Manchester United. This season, Riyad Mahrez has been added to an already impressive squad, while Phil Foden has progressed from being a promising youth to a possible Premier League regular and Benjamin Mendy has recovered from the injury that kept him out of most of last season.
While there is the possibility that opponents, having had a year to study City, will have worked out means to counter it—the beginnings of which process may, in part, be why City was not quite so brilliant after Christmas as it was in the two months before—it’s equally possible that City, with another year of Guardiola’s coaching, will be even slicker.
So Guardiola goes into the season in a familiar position. Everybody expects him to win the league, and so this campaign will be judged largely on how he does in Europe (assuming, that is, that City wins the league; if it does not there will be a lot of questions to answer, not only from the football media but also, you suspect, from the clubs owners in Abu Dhabi.) The Champions League is beginning to weigh on Guardiola. He has not won it since 2011 and the assumption that he would rapidly add a third—back then only Bob Paisley had achieved the feat; since then Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane have both done so—has been replaced by a doubt that perhaps he will never progress beyond the two he has.
The Champions League, after all, is a tournament far more prone to random happenstance than the Premier League. The nature of knockout football is that strange things happen and luck can play a huge part. Guardiola seems to have suffered some particularly egregious instances of misfortune. And yet at the same time, there is perhaps a sense that he is not sufficiently flexible, that a style of football that blasts away 95 percent of teams may need substantial adjustments not to leave his sides vulnerable against the other 5 percent.
What’s slightly strange in that regard is that Guardiola himself must be aware of the problems he sometimes causes for himself. Few coaches are as meticulous in their planning, and he insists on tweaking his system to take advantage of any tactical possibility his opponent may allow him. The problem seems to be that that flexibility of approach has limits because it runs into Guardiola’s other hallmark, his insistence on attacking football. In his first season in the Premier League, it was a familiar refrain after a defeat or a disappointing draw: “Hey guys, what can I say? This is who I am, this is how I play.”
Liverpool was the side that most exposed City’s deficiencies last season, beating the champion three times. Napoli also unsettled City in the group stage of the Champions League but ended up losing both games. That may be the problem: that City can be upset by a team that counter-presses hard against it, but that there is a high risk in doing so. Tottenham for instance, tried to out-press City in both league games, and ended up losing by an aggregate 7-2. Even Liverpool lost 5-0 to City in the league meeting at the Etihad.
But then if Aymeric Laporte, who joined in January, makes himself a regular in the first team, if Vincent Kompany stays fit and if Mendy is recovered, City may also have better personnel at the back this season. It is an awesomely strong squad, settled, well-drilled and with cover in all positions. The title really ought to be City’s again.