Group Stage Fan Preview: Manchester CIty

Pep Guardiola’s arrival at Manchester City, a little over a year ago, projected the club to the upper echelon of world football. While the football itself was anything but top tier at times, the attention the club has received is rivaled by few others. With seemingly a war chest set aside for Pep to create his footballing machine, the footballing world became fixated as to how he would approach the Premier League. Would he alter his idealistic approach in a more physical league? How long would it take for him to settle? Amongst a barrage of other narratives, the English media became fetishized with the idea that his style simply wouldn’t work in a league as competitive as the mighty Premier League.

The journalists who posed the question daily, to Pep’s delight, probably felt validated by City’s round of sixteen Champions League exit at the hands of Monaco, along with a third place finish in a season that many expected them to be favorites. Last season tactical flaws or poor individual performances were easier to deflect. The injury to Ilkay Gundogan early in the season created a gaping hole in City’s midfield. City’s defense was a victim of constant chopping and changing, due to injuries, poor form, and asking declining fullbacks to play one of the most demanding positions in football. This season however, there really are no excuses.

Transfer fees aside, Manchester City realistically couldn’t have done much better than Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy replacing Zabaleta and Kolarov, also adding Danilo as a more than capable back up option in numerous positions. Signing a talented young goalkeeper, with good distribution will appease City fans who endured a painful debut season from Claudio Bravo. While not exactly fulfilling the central midfield depth issues, Berardo Silva is an extremely exciting signing regardless. A much needed injection of youth sets the side up for not only a promising future, but an encouraging short term.

Despite the encouraging signings and a promising pre-season, City endured a tough start to the season beginning with an away opener at newly promoted Brighton and Hove Albion. While retrospect would view the match as an easy win, City were held out until the seventieth minute before Aguero broke the deadlock, with an own goal shortly following. Overall City controlled the match, trying to break down the deep block of a very defensive Brighton side. The proceeding matches proved to be equally difficult, with a frustrating home draw against Everton and a scrappy win away to Bournemouth.

A five-nil win against Liverpool, a side that has caused City issues on recent occasions, will be a massive momentum boost for what has been a slow start to the season. Mane’s red card will unfortunately throw the win into speculation but regardless, City started the half strong and Mane’s dismissal gave City the opportunity to exploit space and play the fluid football that has come to be expected of a Pep Guardiola side.

If I were a betting man, I can guarantee you I wouldn’t be placing money on Guardiola’s line ups. Call it volatility, call it flexibility, it is subject to change regardless. Assuming he recovers in a timely manner, Ederson has practically a certified starting role. In front of him, is much less guaranteed. Vincent Kompany has already had injury set backs this season, so while City have opened up the season fielding a three at the back formation should Kompany struggle to get fit, it’s likely Pep would revert to a four at the back system. While Danilo was fielded there against Liverpool and there are advantages in that, it is seemingly a short term option. Stones and Otamendi will be entering their second season alongside each other and it is likely to stay that way. Equally predictable, is City’s fullback options where bar rotation purposes, it is unlikely to see anyone other than Mendy and Walker in the fullback positions. While Gundogan recovers from his long term lay off, Fernandinho will anchor the midfield with Kevin de Bruyne and Silva ahead of him. Up front, we’ve seen a two striker approach with Gabriel Jesus next to Aguero and the signs are beginning to look more positive. If that should remain the case, it would appear that de Bruyne will operate on the left side of a 4-4-2 with Bernardo on the opposing flank, once he can cement a first team spot.

With what’ll be another season of a heavy schedule, Sane and Sterling will undoubtedly find plenty of minutes whether it be from the bench or a starting role. Sterling has already shown promise this season, earning City points two weeks in a row and Sane looked immense when he was substituted on against Liverpool. Gundogan’s return will likely see Fernandinho settle for a bench role along Yaya Toure. Other bench roles will likely go to Mangala for the center back spot and Danilo, wherever he should be required. Depending on competition, some youngsters may crack into the first team as well.

The addition of powerful young fullbacks should help Guardiola’s side adjust to the high intensity and physicality that the Premier League offers. Should City begin to improve their flow and transition of the different phases of the game, in addition to tightening up the defense and maximizing the attack, they’ll have a strong claim to the title. In Europe, matches against Feyenoord and Shaktar Donetsk should prove to be tricky but certainly winnable. Less winnable however, will be City’s match against a surging Napoli side under Maurizio Sarri, especially at the Stadio San Paolo. While it’ll certainly be a tough match, it’ll equally be a footballing experience. There’s a lot of mutual respect between the two managers and numerous similarities in philosophy and approach, all of which should create two fascinating fixtures. Round of sixteen should be a shoe in for City and they’ll be looking to progress further than last season, that is for sure.

It is an exciting time for the blue side of Manchester. While last season offered plenty of frustrations, it equally offered countless positives that everyone around the club will be hoping can be honed in and improved on.

By: @Calciodiction

Photo: Getty