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...
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.”
“SInCE 1950 FIVE BOSSES HAVE RET AInED THE TITLE – WE nGER nEVER DID IT, CLOUGH nEVER DID IT A nD SHA nKLY nEVER DID IT ”
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”