Can Any­one Stop City?

Pep Guardi­ola’s record-break­ing side were touted by some as the best team that English foot­ball has ever seen – now all they’ve got to do is defy re­cent his­tory and re­peat the feat. No pres­sure...

Australian Four Four Two - - CONTENTS - Words Chris Flana­gan

Pep’s laid down the chal­lenge, now who will step up?

Vin­cent Kom­pany said good­bye to his Manch­ester City team-mates in May with a promise. When he came back from the World Cup, there was one thing he’d do on the first day. “I’ll be look­ing into peo­ple’s eyes,” he said. “I want to see if they have the same in­ten­sity.” No side has ever dom­i­nated a Pre­mier League sea­son quite like City did in 2017-18. The first top-flight team ever to reach 100 points, they played foot­ball in a way that no English team had ever done be­fore, with their op­po­nents dizzied by pass after pass after pass, goal after goal after goal. Al­though they had 11 men on the field like ev­ery­one else, at times it seemed like 15. Try­ing to stop them was the foot­ball equiv­a­lent of Whac-A-Mole: halt one of their at­tack­ing tal­ents and three more popped up, all ca­pa­ble of cre­at­ing a goal in an in­stant. The out­come was in­evitable. So 2018-19 will be an­other walk in the park, right? Kom­pany isn’t so sure, and the City skip­per’s warn­ing is based on ex­pe­ri­ence. In the Pre­mier League, what hap­pened last term counts for noth­ing. It’s now 10 sea­sons since any team re­tained the Pre­mier League ti­tle. In the his­tory of La Liga or the Bun­desliga, there’s no se­quence like it. A Cris­tiano Ron­aldo-in­spired Manch­ester United won the league for a third suc­ces­sive sea­son in 2008-09. But then Ron­nie left for Real Madrid and the tro­phy be­came a hot potato – pass­ing from United to Chelsea, to United, to Manch­ester City, to United, to City, to Chelsea, to Le­ices­ter, to Chelsea and fi­nally back to City again last sea­son. In the past five cam­paigns, not only have the cham­pi­ons failed to re­tain the tro­phy, they’ve usu­ally com­pletely im­ploded. Manch­ester United fin­ished 7th after dis­cov­er­ing that re­plac­ing the re­tir­ing Alex Fer­gu­son with David Moyes wasn’t such a good idea. Chelsea came 10th after the in­fa­mous open­ing-day row be­tween Jose Mour­inho and club doc­tor Eva Carneiro. Le­ices­ter ended up in 12th after sell­ing hu­man dy­namo N’Golo Kante, then shoot­ing Bambi (well, sack­ing Clau­dio Ranieri). And then Chelsea fin­ished 5th – An­to­nio Conte de­cid­ing it would be a great idea to get rid of his top scorer by text, only for the Lon­don­ers to miss out on ex­pected re­place­ment Romelu Lukaku. How not to de­fend a Pre­mier League ti­tle in four easy steps – it’s been a quite as­ton­ish­ing pe­riod in the his­tory of English foot­ball. As­ton­ish­ing, al­though not un­prece­dented – and there’s a com­mon theme that links the teams who break the se­quence, the teams that fi­nally man­age to re­tain the ti­tle, the teams that have the men­tal­ity to win and then win again. They go on to cre­ate a dy­nasty. It had been 10 sea­sons since any club had re­tained the ti­tle back in 1993-94, then Manch­ester United won it for a sec­ond suc­ces­sive year, aided by the ar­rival of Roy Keane. They would win 13 ti­tles in 21 years. In 1976-77, it had been 18 sea­sons since any side had re­tained the ti­tle, go­ing back to the days of Wolver­hamp­ton Wan­der­ers. Then Liver­pool did it – be­gin­ning a run of 10 ti­tles in 15 years. “It’s not a dy­nasty, it’s just one ti­tle,” was Kom­pany’s re­sponse last sea­son when some sug­gested City were em­bark­ing on their own era of dom­i­nance. Might it be­come a dy­nasty? This term could tell us. If any team is ca­pa­ble of re­tain­ing the Pre­mier League tro­phy and go­ing on to win mul­ti­ple ti­tles, it’s surely this Manch­ester City vin­tage: a team who scored 106 goals in 38 matches and won the league by a record 19 points. “I’d like to see us dom­i­nate for an­other 10 years,” was how Kom­pany put it. Ev­ery­thing is in place to do so, in­clud­ing key play­ers at good ages: Kevin De Bruyne at 27, Eder­son 24, John Stones 24, Ra­heem Ster­ling 23, Leroy Sané 22, Gabriel Je­sus 21. They have the best squad in the Pre­mier League, and its deep­est. Los­ing out on mid­fielder Jorginho to Chelsea was a blow, but it didn’t ex­actly leave them short of op­tions. In ev­ery po­si­tion, they have an ar­ray of choice. Riyad Mahrez has joined from Le­ices­ter, but even at £60 mil­lion, the Al­ge­rian still faces a se­ri­ous bat­tle for a start­ing spot. How many club-record sign­ings have ever been in that sit­u­a­tion? Com­bine City’s cur­rent squad with the in­fra­struc­ture to sus­tain suc­cess – a $275m train­ing fa­cil­ity and bur­geon­ing youth teams, from which 18-year-old Phil Fo­den is tipped to be­come one of the finest English play­ers of his gen­er­a­tion – and the task of stop­ping them looks pretty daunt­ing. Kom­pany’s cau­tion is un­der­stand­able, though. He’s been burned be­fore – not once, but twice. Many ex­pected City to re­tain the ti­tle in 2012-13, but in­stead things un­rav­elled. Sign­ings like Jack Rod­well, Scott Sin­clair, Maicon, Matija Nas­ta­sic and Javi Gar­cia didn’t work. Roberto Mancini’s deal­ings with his play­ers be­came frac­tious – Mario Balotelli was shipped out after a train­ing-ground scuf­fle with his boss, caught on cam­era. City lost the league to United, lost the FA Cup fi­nal to Wi­gan, and Mancini was sacked. Things weren’t much bet­ter in 2014-15. Again, new boys – Eli­aquim Man­gala, Fer­nando, Bacary Sagna, Wil­fried Bony – couldn’t keep City on form. Mour­inho’s Chelsea won the ti­tle with three games to spare. It was more than just the sign­ings, though. The Blues were be­set by a gen­eral malaise. “We’ve won two ti­tles at this club and both times, when we come back there was an edge miss­ing,” ad­mit­ted Kom­pany. “That’s why it’s so dif­fi­cult to re­tain ti­tles – only spe­cial teams can do it. We have to be­come that spe­cial team this time.” If things are dif­fer­ent this sea­son, it could be for one main rea­son: Pep Guardi­ola. Only five bosses have re­tained the top-tier ti­tle since 1950 – Fer­gu­son, Mour­inho, Bob Pais­ley, Stan Cullis and Matt Busby. Arsene Wenger never did it. Brian Clough never did it and Bill Shankly never did it. But Pep is known for re­lent­less suc­cess – win­ning three con­sec­u­tive crowns at Barcelona and Bay­ern Mu­nich, never al­low­ing stan­dards to drop from one year to the next. If some play­ers start to think they are un­beat­able, just be­cause they’ve got Guardi­ola at the helm, he shakes them out of it. “At Barcelona and Bay­ern, play­ers be­gan to be­lieve that what they’d done was thanks to me,” he re­vealed at the end of last sea­son. “They thought, ‘We’ve done it once, so we can do it again, and other teams won’t have more en­ergy’. When you have to run five me­tres, you just run three. But those two me­tres make a dif­fer­ence. “Next sea­son will be more dif­fi­cult. My re­la­tion­ship with the play­ers will be harder. It hap­pened at Barcelona and Bay­ern: I have to press them more – the time they ar­rive at train­ing ses­sions, what they have to do with the ball and with­out the ball. If they don’t, they’ll be caught out. I want a team that’s like a ma­chine ev­ery day.” If City pro­duce any­thing like the same form as 2017-18, they’ll surely win the league again. If they don’t, who knows? The chal­lengers aren’t ex­actly hope­less. Even 19 points be­hind their ri­vals, Manch­ester United’s 81 points last term would have won the league in six of the last 22 cam­paigns. “Many clubs had pos­i­tive sea­sons, but City reached a num­ber of points that made it im­pos­si­ble,” in­sisted Mour­inho. “I was cham­pion with Real Madrid with 100 points and Barcelona had 91 points. Was 91 points a fail­ure for Barcelona? I don’t think so.”


Mour­inho is step­ping into the un­known in 2018-19. For the first time in his ca­reer, his sec­ond cam­paign at a club didn’t de­liver the league ti­tle, so where does that leave his tra­di­tion­ally dif­fi­cult third sea­son? This time he has a new con­tract, ex­tended un­til 2020. But fail to win the league, or at least come close, and the pa­tience of some fans might start to wear thin. The Por­tuguese also has to cope with­out as­sis­tant Rui Faria, his 17-year ally leav­ing to be­come a boss in his own right. United must score more – they net­ted 38 fewer than City last time out – and Mour­inho will be un­der more pres­sure to get the best out of Paul Pogba, after the 25-year-old’s per­for­mances for France en route to World Cup glory. Re­cruit­ing Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk should strengthen the mid­field re­gard­less. It’s in mid­field where Liver­pool have strength­ened, too – Emre Can left for Ju­ven­tus, but Fabinho and $93m Naby Keita have ar­rived, while Stoke’s Xher­dan Shaqiri pro­vides a dif­fer­ent op­tion, par­tic­u­larly against en­trenched op­po­nents. Ably as­sisted by Mo­hamed Salah, Pre­mier League Golden Boot win­ner ahead of World Cup Golden Boot win­ner Harry Kane, they proved they’re a force to be reck­oned with by reach­ing last sea­son’s Cham­pi­ons League fi­nal. Of their four show­downs with Manch­ester City in 2017-18, Jur­gen Klopp’s side won the last three. “What­ever City do, it will stay pos­si­ble to beat them in a game,” said Klopp. “If City had played a nor­mal sea­son, which they didn’t, it would have been re­ally close un­til the end. It’s pos­si­ble that it’s closer next time. It’s not im­por­tant how good City will be. It’s about how we get points.” Con­sis­tency re­mains the chal­lenge – well, that and fig­ur­ing out how on earth they’re go­ing to cope with­out the de­parted Adam Bog­dan. Liver­pool will be the first vis­i­tors to Tot­ten­ham’s new 62,000-seat arena on Septem­ber 15, and Spurs’ task is the same as it was last term: progress from chal­lengers to win­ners, while ad­just­ing to a new home. A tro­phy eluded the Li­ly­whites once more in 2017-18 but 3rd place was re­spectable and they did find their feet at Wem­b­ley, al­beit after a slow start. The worry is whether the adap­ta­tion process stretches fur­ther into the sea­son this time – with their new sta­dium not quite ready, they re­turn to Wem­b­ley for one more match and play three of their first four away. Ar­se­nal’s open­ing fix­tures aren’t ex­actly ideal, ei­ther: Unai Emery faces Man City and Chelsea in his first two games as Gun­ners boss – the lat­ter a bat­tle of the new gaffers after Mau­r­izio Sarri’s even­tual ap­point­ment at Stam­ford Bridge. They have work to do with their new squads: Ar­se­nal sup­port­ers hope Emery will in­stil a de­fen­sive rigid­ity and more flex­i­ble tac­ti­cal ap­proach, both of which were lack­ing dur­ing the lat­ter days of Wenger’s reign. Lu­cas Tor­reira, Sokratis Pa­pas­tathopou­los, Stephan Licht­steiner and Bernd Leno have joined to make the Gun­ners a more solid out­fit, par­tic­u­larly away from home. Only Wat­ford, Brighton and West Brom lost more on the road last sea­son. Sarri must re­vi­talise a Chelsea squad that lost its way in 2017-18, get­ting them to per­form with the sort of at­tack­ing piz­zazz that earned wide­spread ado­ra­tion at Napoli. Bring­ing Jorginho with him should help, and the 59-year-old prob­a­bly had a cig­a­rette or two to cel­e­brate that deal – he goes through 60 a day. Ever­ton also have a new man­ager in Marco Silva, and early pre-sea­son form looked promis­ing, pum­melling Aus­trian side ATV Ird­ning 22-0. How­ever, Pre­mier League foes are un­likely to chip balls into their own net from 25 yards, or have a keeper so un­in­ter­ested that he ca­su­ally steps out of the way when the Tof­fees are through on goal. Silva’s pre­vi­ous two jobs lasted only half a sea­son, but ex­pect the Fe­bru­ary visit to Wat­ford to be tasty if he’s still around – the Hor­nets sacked Silva last term after Ever­ton’s first at­tempt to ap­point him de­railed their sea­son. Re­place­ment Javi Gra­cia is the first Hor­nets boss in four years to have sur­vived the sum­mer, al­though the last time it hap­pened, Beppe San­nino de­parted be­fore Au­gust was out. Al­most ev­ery coach in the world has man­aged Wat­ford at some point or other, and the Pre­mier League is steadily col­lect­ing them – Gian­franco Zola is set to be part of Sarri’s back­room staff at Chelsea, while Sean Dy­che bids to re­peat last sea­son’s 7th-placed hero­ics at Burn­ley; their cam­paign al­ready un­der­way in the Europa League. Then there’s Slav­isa Jokanovic at Ful­ham, whose $45m cap­ture of Nice mid­fielder Jean Michael Seri is a state­ment of in­tent – as is the ar­rival of Por­tu­gal keeper Rui Pa­tri­cio at fel­low pro­moted club Wolves, where Jorge Men­des’ as­sis­tance con­tin­ues to aid their re­cruit­ment drive. Both have im­pressed many with their pos­ses­sion play, and will fancy their chances in the top flight. Things could be more of a strug­gle for Cardiff, where ev­ery­one’s favourite Bond vil­lain Vin­cent Tan brings his as­ton­ish­ing trouser­line back to the Pre­mier League along­side un­likely side­kick Neil Warnock. Just months from his 70th birth­day, Warnock worked mir­a­cles to get the Blue­birds pro­moted, but his four pre­vi­ous top-tier sea­sons aren’t overly en­cour­ag­ing: rel­e­gated with Notts County and Sh­effield United, then sacked at QPR and Crys­tal Palace. A re­liance on di­rect play and a res­o­lute de­fence masked a lack of at­tack­ing qual­ity last term, so Warnock will need to work on be­ing more of­fen­sive – a state­ment that would prob­a­bly make his en­e­mies chuckle. Among the grudge matches in 2018-19 are Warnock vs Man City (ar­gu­ment over tackle on Sané in FA Cup), Warnock vs West Ham (lin­ger­ing feud over Car­los Tevez) and Warnock vs Wolves (an­grily telling op­po­site num­ber Nuno Espir­ito Santo to “f**k off”). An­other team who’ll need to im­prove in at­tack are Hud­der­s­field – no team has ever dodged the Pre­mier League drop with fewer than the 28 goals they net­ted last time out. Brighton, New­cas­tle and Southamp­ton also strug­gled in front of goal at times, al­though the lat­ter will hope Mark Hughes can pick up where he left off, ar­riv­ing in March and steer­ing them clear of rel­e­ga­tion. Palace and Le­ices­ter will sim­i­larly aim to kick on in first full sea­sons un­der Roy Hodg­son and Claude Puel re­spec­tively. De­fence will be more of a pri­or­ity for Bournemouth and West Ham. The Ham­mers had the joint-worst con­ces­sion record in the league, so new boss Manuel Pel­le­grini has added de­fend­ers Issa Diop, Ryan Fred­er­icks and Fabian Bal­buena, as well as keeper Lukasz Fabi­an­ski. Jack Wil­shere, An­driy Yar­molenko and $65m Felipe An­der­son could im­prove them go­ing for­ward, too. Four years ago, it was Pel­le­grini in the po­si­tion that Guardi­ola finds him­self in now, tasked with de­fend­ing the ti­tle for Manch­ester City. Ul­ti­mately, the Chilean couldn’t do it. If Kom­pany had looked in the eyes of his team-mates, the in­ten­sity would have been miss­ing. Can any­one stop City this term? If pre­vi­ous ev­i­dence is any­thing to go by, the most im­por­tant bat­tle will be with them­selves.

Above “Keep aim­ing for the stars, fel­las” Be­low “Wel­come, Riyad. You’re play­ing for the re­serves”

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