Its Champions League ban lifted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Manchester City can begin planning properly for next season. It’s easy now for Pep Guardiola to say he wouldn’t have left even if Man City found itself in League Two, and perhaps that is true. But even with a Premier League investigation into alleged breaches of Financial Fair Play regulation ongoing, Man City can be confident he will remain and also that various key players whose futures had begun to look uncertain–notably Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling–will also stay.
But that isn’t to say that there isn’t serious work to be done if Man City is to close the gap on Liverpool. Man City already has this season's League Cup trophy and could still end up with the FA Cup and Champions League titles as well but, even if it wins its final three league games of the season–which it should–it will end up with only three more points than in Guardiola's first season with the club, down 17 from last year and somewhere around 20 behind Liverpool.
Man City has lost nine league games this season and conceded 34 goals so far (as opposed to 23 last season, 27 the year before and 39 in Guardiola’s first campaign). The matches since the restart have been a microcosm of the season as a whole. Man City has looked brilliant in some games, racked up three 5-0 wins, beaten Liverpool 4-0 and Arsenal 3-0, and yet has also exposed a glass jaw that has led to defeats at Chelsea and Southampton. In both of those games, Man City dominated lengthy periods and in both it was undone by balls in behind its defensive line. That’s been the story all season, against Norwich, against Wolves, against Manchester United: beat the press and expose the back four, and Man City is vulnerable.
It’s a flaw that is to an extent unavoidable in the Guardiola style. Players good enough on the ball to play his way who also have the full array of traditional defensive attributes are extremely rare. There were doubts already about John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, and those were augmented by the failure to replace Vincent Kompany, not just for his capacities as a center back but as a leader. At least one, and possibly two center backs are likely to arrive, with Man City strongly linked with Inter’s Slovakia international Milan Skriniar and Napoli’s Senegal international Kalidou Koulibaly. Manchester United, though, is also believed to be interested in both. The rescheduled transfer window will open on July 27 and run until Oct. 5, allowing the race to begin in just a couple of weeks.
But the middle of defense is only one area where Man City is likely to try to strengthen. There are questions at left back, where Benjamin Mendy, afflicted by a series of injuries, seems never quite to have recovered the form he showed at Monaco, and a series of replacements haven’t wholly convinced. And Fernandinho, whether at the back of midfield or as a makeshift center back, is more important to the side than a 35-year-old probably should be.
The departures of Leroy Sane and David Silva leave vacancies in midfield. The emergence of Phil Foden, and his ability to play either centrally or on the right wing, covers one of those, but that still leaves a position, which looks likely to be filled by Spain international Ferran Torres, as he joins the exodus from Valencia.
Perhaps the biggest question is at center forward. Sergio Aguero is 32. Guardiola seems in some ways to prefer Gabriel Jesus, for his work rate and his ability to lead the press, but he is nothing like the finisher Aguero is. That may come: at 23, it’s not clear yet whether he is a fraction below the very highest level or whether he will suddenly explode and score 40 goals in a season. But it seems telling that both have been mentioned as potential makeweights in deals to bring Skriniar to the Etihad.
Swap deals are, by their nature, complex and rarely happen, for all the accounting benefits they can bring in offsetting amortization. What is significant is that both center forwards are perceived as expendable. Guardiola’s demands will be specific: he will want a player mobile enough to lead the press, intelligent enough to follow his positional demands and who finished better than Gabriel Jesus. Who that could be is unclear, and so long as Aguero recovers fully from his knee surgery, the issue is not urgent, though it is something Man City must be considering.
Guardiola’s contract has only one more year to run, and the squad is in need of some reshaping, but Man City has the resources to provide him with what he needs. Thanks to the CAS verdict, there is nothing to prevent the club and Guardiola from using them.