Premier League 2020-21 preview No 12: Manchester City

Premier League 2020-21 preview No 12: Manchester City

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 2nd (NB: this is not necessarily Jamie Jackson’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 2nd

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 8-11

Pep Guardiola has now failed four times to take City beyond the Champions League quarter-final stages. That record will be the prism through which he will be viewed in what might be his last season at the Etihad Stadium as he is yet to extend a contract that ends next summer. The question of what went wrong (again) in Europe and if City can (finally) go beyond the last eight, at least, will be a recurring one put to the manager and one that may – at times – be met with impatience and displeasure. It gnaws at him too.

There is zero doubt that Guardiola was hired in 2016 to win the club a first European Cup as well as oversee an upgrade in the quality of football. The former is yet to occur, the latter has been achieved domestically, most clearly in the record 2017-18 100-point season and the following one, at the end of which City became the first team to retain the championship for a decade.

Fast-forward to the current transfer window. The deals so far completed – Bournemouth’s Nathan Aké for £41m, Ferran Torres’s £24.5m move from Valencia – are designed to boost central defence and attack, respectively. The rearguard was the problem going into last summer and the collective inability to address this even when knowing Vincent Kompany’s imminent departure would weaken the centre-back area further was a puzzle that cost them.

Aké appears a shrewd purchase, a player with 146 Premier League appearances who at 25 has his best years before him. Torres will be have to be very talented to match the quality of the player he is replacing: Leroy Sané, whose move to Bayern Munich has to be considered a blow to Guardiola’s hopes of reclaiming the championship and mounting a Champions League challenge.

City interactive

Domestic opponents may take note of City’s serial failures in continental competition under Guardiola, which have been against Monaco, Liverpool, Tottenham and Lyon. Each exit came down to, in the main, the manager being concerned at the opposition’s record of taking the contest by the scruff of the neck. Instead of concentrating on how City can and do dismantle teams, Guardiola surrendered the initiative by tinkering with selection and formation. (A caveat here regarding the vagaries of management: tinker and win and you are a genius, lose and you are a chump – as illustrated by Guardiola playing a 4-4-2 at Real Madrid in February that had Sergio Agüero and Raheem Sterling benched, Gabriel Jesus wide left, and Kevin De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva as the front pairing. This was the manager in uber-fiddle mode and City won 2-1.)

Further forward David Silva is an obvious loss but as age had faded his powers and his departure allows Foden to become a starting member of the XI there may be a blessing here. Foden appears to be a generational talent like Mason Greenwood at Manchester United and his absence from the quarter-final side that faced Lyon was a touch baffling given how his late-season form impressed. Asking Foden to take over from Silva and help City bridge the 18-point gap to Liverpool and become the missing link between quarter-final/last-16 disappointment and being real contenders in the Champions League is a tall order. But this is the level of demand at a club of City’s ambition.

Another poser is how Bernardo Silva went from being nominated for the 2019 PFA Player of the Year award and Guardiola billing him as being the best player in the league for 2018-19 to a bit part last term. If the Portuguese can rediscover his best form then City will, to use the cliche, have a “new signing”. The chances of there being a real one in the form of Lionel Messi, a game-changer extraordinaire, appear to have vanished.

Quick guide

Manchester City’s history in 100 words

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The club with an anthem of “We’re not really here” formed as a St Mark’s church team in 1880, becoming Ardwick AFC in 1887, and Manchester City in 1894, claiming a first major trophy in 1904: the FA Cup. George V visited City’s Hyde Road in 1920 a few months before fire ravaged the ground and the club moved to Maine Road in 1923. An inaugural championship in 1936-37, a second in 1967-8, a fourth FA Cup the following year, a League and Cup Winners’ Cup double the next, were all successes that preceded an era of near-drought. Sheikh Mansour’s 2008 buyout transformed the club. A £1bn-plus investment has yielded four Premier Leagues, two FA Cups and five League Cups. Now, City are truly here.

Photograph: Michael Regan – UEFA/UEFA

The manager

On the touchline Guardiola ranges from a man frantically semaphoring his players to a particularly disappointed headmaster striding back to his seat while informing his assistants that Raheem Sterling is just not pressing how he should today.

On Zoom Can be fidgety, urbane, is always polite and also loquacious: ask him a tactical question and he enters stream-of-consciousness mode in which the vagaries of the game are articulated with enthusiasm, Guardiola’s unadulterated love of the sport evident.

Pep Guardiola crouching on the touchline

The key

De Bruyne is the standout player (unless Messi arrives, of course) but how the “Stockport Iniesta” Foden fares will have greater impact on the fortunes of a team left with a David Silva-sized hole after the Spaniard’s departure. Bet on the 20-year-old to go impressively.

The owners

Sheikh Mansour has overseen a decade of serial success but it still jars that an owner who has done much for the club and surrounding area has been to one match in a 12-year ownership. Fans could not care less: he remains a hero and his elevating of City into a force has made domestic and continental football richer and more vibrant.

Young blood

With Fernandinho fading the 18-year-old Tommy Doyle has a chance to become a regular member of the match-day squad. The midfielder made his first three first-team appearances last season, including a Premier League debut in July’s 5-0 win over Newcastle at the Etihad.

Tommy Doyle fires in a shot against Newcastle in July

New blood

Messi would not just be the key signing, he would be padlock possessor and gate-keeper: a man who can unlock teams at will and who would light up City and the domestic game and, surely, make them favourites to pull of a historic (for the club) Premier League and European Cup double. But it seems it is not to be, at least this season.

Kit story

One prevalent explanation for City’s sky-blue livery is an apparent association with freemasonry and prominent members of a local lodge rescuing the club from a financial crisis in 1894: this, however, is considered to be incorrect. Why this colour, then, remains a mystery unlike the iconic black and red striped away kit. According to the club this was a Malcolm Allison-driven initiative for 1968-69 season, the coach inspired by the colours of the previous season’s pre-eminent Milan team.

Notes from an empty stadium

For the post-lockdown matches there were giant split screens by each goal that featured fans watching the game. For the first outing – the visit of Arsenal – at least one of the available panels was not filled, prompting the joke on social media about City and the “Emptihad”. It is actually rarely true that the stadium is not filled, when fans are allowed.

Euros vision

Foden had not received a call-up until Gareth Southgate announced his late-August squad for England’s games against Iceland and Denmark. The suspicion is that once he gets in the XI he may remain a fixture for many years.