Premier League 2019‑20 preview No 11: Manchester City
Guardian writers’ predicted position: Champions (NB: this is not necessarily Jamie Jackson’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)
Last season’s position: Champions
Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 1-2
Manchester City will enter the season as domestic kings supreme who may decide it prudent to abdicate two of their three crowns.
Pep Guardiola and his players would never concede the point publicly but a deal in which the FA and Carabao Cups are not retained in exchange for a third consecutive title and a run to the Champions League final would surely be snapped up.
This is the equation Guardiola may light upon when assessing the clean sweep of home competitions in what was a season for the ages from his team. Here the manager’s analysis would run that to retain the Premier League and take City beyond their best return of a European Cup semi-final his forces must be marshalled differently.
City’s Champions League quarter-final elimination by Tottenham Hotspur was by the tightest of margins: defeat on away goals after the tie ended 4-4. City would have triumphed if Raheem Sterling’s late strike had not been ruled out by VAR, and being unable to score in the opening leg meant they failed to gain an edge that might have proved vital.
This, though, is the point: a City side whose focus and energies were not diluted by having to battle for all four available trophies could have swung the percentages their way and not allowed a Spurs team who were overpowered by Liverpool in the final to scrape through.
Guardiola’s ethos of believing every match should be won is admirable but in 2019-20 mental and physical resources will be saved if the FA and League Cups are sacrificed and retaining the league (again) and becoming champions of the continent is made the holy grail.
Liverpool, of course, are buoyed by that sixth European Cup triumph and will be intent on overtaking City to claim an inaugural Premier League crown. The two sides traded blows in an unusually feisty Community Shield and Jürgen Klopp’s side were only a point short of a stunning double of their own last season. But it shows City’s dominance that they repelled the challenge of a team who lost only once (crucially, to Guardiola’s men).
Liverpool, again, will be City’s main foe domestically and in Europe. As is now custom under the Txiki Begiristain-Ferran Soriano sporting director-chief executive axis, City have moved slickly in the market to give them the best chance of holding off Klopp’s men. The defensive midfielder Rodri joined from Atlético Madrid in the first week of July, City paying his €70m (£62.8m) release clause, so the addition of a central defender, following Vincent Kompany’s departure for Anderlecht, is the only real recruitment issue remaining.
Guardiola’s first-choice would have been Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci but the need to fill the homegrown quota means he has to look to these shores. Leicester City’s £80m-plus valuation of Harry Maguire has so far priced out City – by around £15m – and Bournemouth’s Nathan Aké remains a low-level standby. The 24-year-old is a Netherlands international but qualifies as home-reared after joining Chelsea at 16.
City may end the window having not added a centre-back. Yet whether they do and how the high ball is dealt with could be crucial. In a team that are so impressive, identifying a “weakness” can be a fool’s game but, in Kompany, Guardiola has lost 6ft 3in of aerial dominance and, even before the Belgian’s departure, the manager confessed to concern regarding City’s lack of height.
Rodri’s 6ft 3in can help buttress this and Guardiola may deploy him at centre-back on occasion, as he does the smaller (at 5ft 9in) Fernandinho. A further option is Eric García, though the 18-year-old centre-back made his debut only last term so is potential rather a seasoned performer.
All of this throws light on how John Stones’s career at the club has so far disappointed. His challenge is to prove he can become the accomplished defender Guardiola hoped for when buying him three years ago. Stones still makes too many errors and was demoted to second choice last season.
The club have re-signed Angeliño from PSV Eindhoven for £5.3m, having sold the left-back to the Dutch club 12 months ago. City decided to utilise a buy-back clause, partly because of Benjamin Mendy’s injury-plagued two years, though as PSV were fielding bids of around £20m for the Spaniard this was sound business sense, too.
Oleksandr Zinchenko may start as the first-choice left-back (Fabian Delph, who deputised in the role, has left for Everton for £8.5m) and Kyle Walker could face fresh competition at right-back. Danilo, his understudy, would be allowed to go and talks have reopened over João Cancelo of Juventus.
Should Leroy Sané remain a City player – he is Bayern Munich’s “dream” signing, according to their manager, Niko Kovac – this can be chalked up as major success given the forward’s sublime talent and the pull of the German champions.
None of the above, though, can be rated more than low-level trifles for Guardiola, underlining what a smoothly professional operation City are. The bigger issue could lie with the manager himself: can he again self-motivate and fire up his squad for a nine-month assault on success? The 48-year-old prides himself on unerring self-analysis, knowing where, precisely, he is regarding energy levels, contentment and desire. The year’s sabbatical taken after coaching Barcelona to recharge is evidence of this. But, subconsciously, might Guardiola slacken off even the half a per cent that can be crucial?
It is unlikely. Given his love of the pursuit of excellence plus the chance to claim a third successive title and make City only one of five clubs to do so in England – Manchester United (twice), Liverpool, Arsenal and Huddersfield Town are the others – the manager’s hunger should remain unsated. Here, Liverpool can be unwitting helpers. Just as the Manchester United of mid-era Sir Alex Ferguson were propelled forward by Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal so Liverpool’s desire to dethrone City can be harnessed by Guardiola.
The hiccup of the plane to Shanghai for the start of City’s tour being delayed by 48 hours was followed by the 6-1 defeat of Kitchee, a penalty shootout defeat by Wolverhampton Wanderers, a 4-1 win over West Ham United and the 3-1 win over their sister club Yokohama Marinos before Sunday’s Community Shield win over Liverpool on penalties.
When City travel to West Ham for their season opener on Saturday they will still be the side to beat.