The Season Just Gone
Manchester City’s campaign was more-or-less torpedoed by injuries to various key players, the alarmingly sharp declines of others, and endless speculation surrounding Manuel Pellegrini’s future. Captain and leader Vincent Kompany was (and remains) barely been able to string a run of games together, while Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva, Pablo Zabaleta and, inevitably, Sergio Agüero all missed large parts of the season.
Meanwhile, veterans like Yaya Touré, Martín Demichelis and Aleks Kolarov, key players in City’s last title triumph, regressed markedly. Touré looked increasingly tired, disinterested and unable to keep up with the pace of top-level football, while Demichelis became so bad that an eighteen year-old with almost no experience but with pace to burn literally ended the Argentine’s Premier League career. It’s no surprise that Touré has now been frozen out and Demichelis shipped out.
All things considered, it was almost impossible for City to get into a half-decent rhythm and play to anything like their full potential for any length of time. Equally, it was impossible for Pellegrini’s tenure to continue. Too many standards had slipped on and off the field, and when a manager of Pep Guardiola’s calibre is available, it’s impossible to turn him down.
The Season Ahead
…could be absolutely sensational. Hopes and expectations understandably went through the roof when it was confirmed that Guardiola was on his way to the Etihad, and if the start of the season has been anything to go by, Manchester City will win the Premier League with almost unprecedented ease. Not that City’s eventual triumph will surprise anyone – Guardiola has won six league titles in his seven seasons as a top-level manager, and their budget is laughably gigantic – but the quality of their football and the gulf between them and the other teams is already unbelievable. If they keep it up… well, things could get bloody.
For the last few years Guardiola has been measured primarily on the European stage and less so in domestic terms, but this is unfair and doing so would be even more unfair this time around. His squads at Barcelona and Bayern Munich were so complete that success in the league was almost a formality, leaving them relatively free to have a serious crack at the Champions League. Man City’s squad is nowhere near that level of completion yet, and their group stage draw has left them facing a very tough path through the knockout phases.
One senses that Guardiola is rather more concerned with winning the Premier League than any other competition. His immediate goal will be preserving City’s 100% start to the season on Sunday, and further extending it in the weeks to come. Spurs should be very, very afraid.
As ever, Guardiola has favoured a loose 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 system and extreme levels of positional interchange. In one moment it can look like a 4-1-4-1, a few seconds later a 3-4-3, and in the next phase of play it’ll be something like a W-M. The truly striking things are that: 1 his teams make it look so damn easy to do this, and 2. this way of playing isn’t just the pretentious affectation of a philosophising pseud, but an unstoppably effective way of dominating games and scoring goals.
It’s now eight years since Guardiola’s incredibly complex and eye-catching interpretation of juego de posición (positional play) was first shown to the world, and in some ways it feels like he’s been around forever – and yet it still seems like almost no-one has reacted sufficiently to his ideas or caught up with him as he sets the pace. Frankly, Guardiola’s teams seem to play a different, better sport to everyone else.
Their most obvious and most decisive strength is that they always seem to have the ball. They’ve averaged 60.3% possession so far this season, the highest average in the Premier League and the fifth highest in all of Europe. They have the second highest pass completion rate in the division and play a markedly more attacking style than Chelsea, the only team whose rate is higher. Only Liverpool have completed more passes in total, and the Reds have played two games against newly promoted teams, one of which had ten men for an hour.
Of course, it’s not just the way Guardiola drills his teams to play with the ball, but how they’re set up to play without it, too. His pressing game at Barcelona revolutionised football just as much as the artistry shown by the likes of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi, and Bayern played with exactly the same furious intensity, even with the previously famously workshy Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry among their ranks.
Already there has been a noticeable step up in City’s work-rate when they need to win possession back – although it must be said that they were so passive and lethargic in these situations last season that just about any change would’ve been an improvement. They now make 17.7 tackles per game, 15.2 interceptions and 9.3 fouls per game, while blocking 7.8 passes per game: not especially high figures in and of themselves, but when we consider that they’re doing more off the ball than Sunderland despite having 20% more of the ball on average, we can see just how much pressure they’re putting on the ball on the rare occasions they lose it.
All this adds up to extreme levels of domination: Man City have taken 17.7 shots per game on average and faced 9.5; they’ve hit the target 6 times per game while their own keeper has been worked 3 times per game; 50% of their shots on target have been goals, while 72.2% of the shots faced have been saved. In short: Man City are Muhammad Ali and their opposition is a punch bag.
Kevin De Bruyne is out. Jesús Navas will probably play.
The defence hasn’t really settled yet.
That’s about it.
There are a few question marks over City’s potential line-up in defence after their midweek horror-show in Scotland, while De Bruyne’s absence and Nolito’s suspension open the door for the absolutely hopeless Jesús Navas, and City fans will be keen for an alternative solution to be found.
Mauricio Pochettino has several injury worries coming into the game, most notably in the centre of midfield, where Eric Dier and Moussa Dembélé are both carrying knocks. Their intensity would be much needed and if both are ruled out, we may as well cancel the game, give City the three points and save ourselves a lot of bother.
Guardiola’s Man City go into every single game expected to win by a couple of goals and this one should be no different. Spurs look toothless without Harry Kane and City’s midfield domination should be close to complete, especially if Dier and Dembélé are out. The White Hart Lane crowd is strongly advised to enjoy the exhibition and ignore the scoreline.