Premier League 2020-21: Can Man City win the title back as Guardiola enters unknown territory?

Oleh Dom Farrell 21 September 2020 128
Premier League 2020-21: Can Man City win the title back as Guardiola enters unknown territory?

Despite a clatter of unhelpful developments around Manchester City at the start of September, it had at least looked like a useful couple of days for Bernardo Silva.

The Portugal international, City's player of the year when they won an unprecedented domestic treble in 2018-19, suffered a strangely underwhelming season last time around - especially for a player who seems so in tune with Pep Guardiola's vision and demands.

Lionel Messi arriving in Manchester would have probably blocked Bernardo's route back to a place on the right of City's front three. But the six-time Ballon d'Or winner announced he would remain at Barcelona against his will.

Among Silva's other rivals for the spot are two men who appeared to usurp him in the pecking order last season. But Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden returned positive results for coronavirus and sensational idiocy respectfully on the first Monday of the month.

There we go Bernardo, the shirt is yours.

On Tuesday, he limped out of Portugal's Nations League match in Sweden with an apparent thigh problem.

EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES OR FALLING STOCK?

All three of Mahrez, Silva and Foden appear to be in contention for Monday's trip to Wolves although Sergio Aguero could miss up to two more months as he recovers from meniscus surgery and Aymeric Laporte's late return to training following his own COVID-19 diagnosis means City's best centre-back is likely to be absent.

Even so, a front three of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus and new signing Ferran Torres could line up, with PFA Player of the Year Kevin De Bruyne supplying his brand of high-end ammunition,

The depth and variety of those options handily answers the titular question somewhat early. Of course City can win a third title in four seasons and hit back against Liverpool's rampant brilliance, especially given the quick turnaround from 2019-20 is likely to make fatigue and rotation more decisive than usual.

But the drip-drip of sub-optimal developments for Guardiola over recent weeks chimes with a similar steady stream from last season.

Whether that was grumbles about tight VAR calls, Silva's punishment by the FA for posting a racially offensive cartoon on social media or the club's court case with UEFA rumbling away in the background, it demonstrated how everything must run with perfect smoothness to achieve the levels City did in amassing 198 points over their back-to-back title-winning campaigns, along with showing that any slight drop off will be magnified when challenged to meet near perfection.

Liverpool - already two wins from two - are now the team aiming to string together three gargantuan points totals in succession. For Guardiola, it must feel like a rubber season in his rivalry with Klopp.

For the past three years, Liverpool (two Champions League finals, winning one, and ending a three-decade wait for title glory) and City (Back-to-back titles, and a run at one stage of winning six out of the past seven domestic trophies on offer) have operated on elite terms.

Each has a resounding title success apiece and a shared a knife-edge battle - City prevailing by 98 to 97 points in 2018-19, a year on from becoming the first team in Premier League history to hit 100 points.

FIVE STAR PEP?

Guardiola enters a season that will do much to define his time in England in unchartered territory. Never before has he led a club for five seasons, bowing out after four at Barcelona and helming Bayern Munich for the three immediately before his arrival at the Etihad Stadium.

While this speaks of a man at ease with surroundings tailored to his specifications, free of the political ructions of Camp Nou or an ever-meddling coterie of ex-Bayern players, it feels fair to wonder whether the 49-year-old's famously intense style is built to ward off diminishing returns.

Last season, City scored 102 Premier League goals and were breath-taking at their best. 

The interchangeable forward lines Guardiola rolled out for the EFL Cup semi-final win at Manchester United, each leg of the last-16 Champions League encounter with Real Madrid and the 4-0 ruffling of Liverpool's freshly placed crown ranked as some of his most impressive tactical innovations in England and yielded handsome results.

Expect him to explore those setups further, especially with old mentor Juanma Lillo now settled on the backroom staff.

Guardiola was driven to such experiments by the absence of key personnel - Laporte and the now-departed Leroy Sane missed large chunks of 2019-20 with knee ligament injuries - and the sight of his tried and trusted 4-3-3 looking tired and worked out on occasions.

A Premier League record of 18 consecutive wins provided the backbone for their 2017-18 success, while 14 triumphs from January to the finishing line bested Liverpool the season after. The most victories they managed in succession last time was five, and those were all dead rubbers behind closed doors. The best they managed with the league on the line was three.

Nothing better underlined City's capacity to lurch from the magnificent to the maddening better than their shambling 3-1 Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon after comprehensively outclassing Madrid.

THE SCARS OF LISBON

Guardiola rolling out a 3-5-2 was swiftly added to his dossier of Champions League "overthink" but matching Lyon's system made sense in theory. Defeats home and away to Wolves - a factor that loomed over Monday's Molineux clash - showed City were vulnerable to teams who could break with pace from the solid foundation established by three centre-backs.

However, the players selected to carry out the task left City muddled. Silva and Foden remaining as unused substitutes was perplexing, as was Benjamin Mendy and Oleksandr Zinchenko looking on while right-back Joao Cancelo grappled with left wing-back duties.

The result was a team appearing ill at ease with their manager's plan, while some of Guardiola's more curious selections heavily inferred there are senior professionals he no longer trusts. How else to explain John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi being unable to get into a back three featuring career midfielder Fernandinho and a teenager in Eric Garcia who is unwilling to sign a new contract?

The one quarter-final absentee who appeared to unquestionably retain the full belief of his coach and be destined for great things this season was Foden, who is now likely to need astute support and guidance to negotiate an ordeal of his own making.

Torres and Nathan Ake were swiftly captured as new recruits but City's other business - they have been heavily linked to Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly - has stalled.

They understandably remained at arms' length as the Messi saga played out, the promise of fantasy football receding back to a reality where Guardiola must replenish the ties between himself and his team that appeared frayed by their Lisbon experience.

There is still so much to recommend about a City team that redefined excellence in a Premier League context. But how much road do they and their feted manager have left to run?

Wolves, Leicester City, Leeds United, Arsenal, West Ham, Sheffield United, Liverpool and Tottenham represent a tricky opening stretch that should tell us plenty about whether last season's wounds were superficial or run much deeper.

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Dom Farrell

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