Manchester City never does it the easy way.
Despite being the best side in the league during their two Premier League triumphs this decade, the boys from the Etihad have stumbled across the finishing line opposed to cruising to silverware like the great teams before them.
During Roberto Mancini’s tenure, City benefitted from United’s slip-ups against Wigan and Everton, before Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero scored stoppage time goals to defeat relegation battling QPR to win the Premier League in the most controversial manner.
Then in the latter stages of last season –– despite only being top of the league for 14 days of the season –– after a crushing defeat at Anfield against Liverpool, Chelsea and Crystal Palace subsequently took points off the Reds that led to another late revival in May.
However, lodged between City’s narrow title triumphs was a disappointing season that saw a considerably frail Manchester United side top their rivals by 11 points to reclaim the league title. City’s attempt to build a dynasty failed miserably, and their poor activity in the transfer market played a significant factor.
Mancini didn’t get the required pieces –– Javi Martinez, Robin van Persie, Daniele De Rossi and Eden Hazard –– and was handed Jack Rodwell, Scott Sinclair, Javi Garcia, Maicon and Matija Nastasic, with only the latter featuring regularly in the starting XI. City had only won the league on goal difference, which explains why the signing of a legitimate world-class striker in van Persie catapulted United back to glory, while City’s development stagnated.
The arrival of Manuel Pellegrini saw City recruit experienced players around the continent –– Jesus Navas, Alvaro Negredo, Fernandinho and Stevan Jovetic –– to fill the voids within their squad, but winning the title on the final day of the season against rivals that were in transitional periods calls for improvement.
However, City’s transfer activity this summer has been limited due to their Financial Fair Play irregularities. While Diego Costa, Ander Herrera, and Alexis Sanchez have joined their title rivals, City has introduced Fernando, Willy Caballero, Bacary Sagna and Frank Lampard on-loan, with Porto centre-back Eliaquim Mangala expected to join the reigning champions.
Pellegrini’s squad doesn’t need major changes, but increased quality would not only separate City from those attempting to make a title push, but increase their chances of competing against Europe’s elite in the Champions League.
Sagna and Caballero provide adequate cover and increase competition for Pablo Zabaleta and Joe Hart, while Lampard’s arrival is merely a wise ploy to keep him fit ahead of New York City FC’s inaugural season and meet the required five home-grown player quota in the Champions League.
This leaves £12m Fernando as City’s sole significant purchase, with the champions finally replacing the tenacious Nigel de Jong. Fernando is a quality footballer that can sit at the base of the midfield and break up play with his physicality and positional intelligence, while Fernandinho and Yaya Toure offer attacking impetus in central areas. His signing also offers Pellegrini flexibility to stray away from his preferred 4-4-2 and potentially dabble with a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 in big games.
Fernando’s arrival is significant because with Yaya Toure turning 31-years-old last May, Pellegrini will be eager to deploy the Ivorian higher up the pitch and decrease his defensive duties. City’s midfield remains their strong point with a veteran core of players, led by the impeccable David Silva. Toure’s 20 goals received plaudits last year, but Silva was their best player.
Look no further than Silva’s standout performances against the best sides in the Premier League last season. Silva constantly found spaces between the lines to provide delicate through-balls to his teammates, while his willingness to drift laterally from flank-to-flank to create overloads played a significant role in City’s dominance on the left side of the pitch. Silva’s goal or assist tally don’t represent his overall excellence, as he’s usually the catalyst in City’s best moves, averaging a league high 3.6 key passes and 0.6 accurate through-balls per game.
Pellegrini’s midfield should suffice for another season, but the main worry for City lies both in defence and attack.
The fullback positions appear to be solidified, but it’s the centre-back area that looks particularly feeble. Vincent Kompany has declined significantly since City’s first title triumph, and like partner Martin Demichelis –– who will turn 34 next season –– is extremely vulnerable when positioned higher up the pitch. City has desperately required a top-class defender alongside Kompany over the past few seasons, and while Mangala has the potential to become an elite European centre-back, his arrival doesn’t guarantee immediate defensive solidity.
The one positive Pellegrini can take from preseason –– along with no injuries sustained or issues within the locker room –– is the form of Jovetic. City operated in a 4-4-2 throughout their USA tour, with Jovetic forming an imperious strike force with Dzeko. Jovetic scored five goals at the Guinness International Champions Cup, but more impressive was his overall linkup play. Jovetic operated behind the main striker and dropped deep to link play with the midfield, his various strike partners, and created space for runners to exploit.
Nonetheless, there was never an issue regarding the quality of City’s attacking quartet. Pellegrini’s main concern was in regards to their fitness levels. With Alvaro Negredo sidelined for approximately two months with a broken foot, along with Sergio Aguero and Jovetic’s recurring injuries, only Dzeko serves as a reliable option.
Aguero, in particular, was stellar last season scoring 32 goals in 36 appearances in all competitions, despite suffering numerous injuries. Aguero scored against every side in the top seven excluding Liverpool –– he was sidelined for the home fixture, and played a bit part role in the return showdown at Anfield after returning from injury –– further exemplifying his importance to City’s title challenge.
When available, Aguero is undoubtedly the best striker in the league, and his fitness plays a significant factor in City’s title hopes.
While no club has retained the Premier League since the turn of the decade, City is equipped to be the first.
But with Chelsea adding the missing pieces to their squad, the fitness of City’s strikers and the arrival of a top-class centre-back will play a vital role in whether Pellegrini’s side becomes the third team to retain the Premier League title.
City is definitely a more complete side in their second title defence of the decade, but shades of their 2012-2013 season hovers around the Etihad.