Pep's Man City finally fulfilling his vision
Manchester City have blown away their September opposition, and are in pole position to battle for this years title. We analyse how this has came about.
We’re only five games in to the season, but a lot of fans already seem to have decided on their firm favourties for the 17/18 title. Manchester City were odds on amongst most of the leading bookmakers throughout the summer, and with an astounding 15 goals in their last three games, it’s easy to see why.
Pep and his board of directors were criticised heavily throughout the transfer window; the club spent well over £200m, with 75% of that on defenders alone. Despite the cost, they have spent wisely. There has been a clear strategy in place, and Pep has improved massively on the weaknesses within last years the side. It is, quite literally, a case of out with the old and in with the new at Manchester City. City suffered last season, with an ageing and injury stricken squad. Pep acknowledged they were not up to scratch, and that his side had fallen behind champions Chelsea and runners-up Spurs; “You have to accept sometimes the opposition is better. Then you analyse why to improve for the future.” The Spaniard has done exactly that.
There have been several departures, many of whom have been great servants to the club in the golden period of their history. However, the exits of 30-somethings such as Zabaleta, Sagna, Jesus Navas, Kolarov, Clichy and Fernando was necessary to free up space in both the squad and the wage bill. This has allowed Pep to introduce fresher and more exciting talent, with an average age of only 23. The exits of these players have brought in nearly £100m; which is crucial for the club to stay clear of any future Financial Fair Play punishments.
However, it is the arrivals that have created the greatest impact. The full backs were the number one priority. Pablo Zabaleta was a cult hero, whilst both Kolarov and Clichy also contributed massively to the team, but they were not ‘Guardiola players’. Their time was up and that was clear throughout the majority of last season. The 4-0 loss at Goodison Park in January epitomized the problem City had with their team. Pep is far too familiar with having athletic and versatile defenders throughout his time at both Bayern and Barca. His previous players were so crucial in their ability to transition defence in to attack, that done so with both pace and power, but more importantly players that possessed an elite mentality and intelligence to keep up with his fluid system. Going from Alba and Alves, then Lahm and Alava to Zabaleta and Clichy was always going to be a problem, and it is one that City should have addressed sooner.
Upon highlighting that game in January, Koeman’s Everton punished City’s defence, pressing the full-backs high up the park and isolating the central defenders, who seemed totally uncomfortable stepping out to face the oncoming Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas. It was a defeat that almost shattered City’s title hopes within 90 minutes. Yet, fast forward eight months and City seem unfazed by even the league’s most lethal attackers. The introduction of Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, plus the return of the captain Vincent Kompany (albeit for only a month) has shored up the defence, as well as aiding the attack.
"The full-backs are so important," said Guardiola. "They offer energy to go up and down so that means we can put more players in the middle, to play, to pass the sort passes.” This has been a crucial improvement to the team, as City look as dangerous as they have ever been. Kevin De Bruyne is arguably one of the league’s best creative midfielders, and has started so impressively that the board has opened up talks to improve his £120k p/w wage. Yet, De Bruyne points back to the help of the full backs to highlight the team’s success; “They make the pitch big, that is a quality of them and it was difficult for the other team. To go around Mendy and Kyle you need to have a lot of trickery and pace and even then they can come back. That is the difference with last year.”
When you think of Pep’s ‘tiki-taka’ philosophy, it is not the defence that first springs to mind, however their improvements at the back has paid dividends. Despite putting five, four and six past Liverpool, Feyenoord and Watford respectively, this has been done so without reply. Stones and Otamendi look a lot more assured with the help of Kompany, and the arrival of Danilo from Madrid has also helped bring a bit more pace to the back line. Pep was often praised for his adaptability at the Allianz Arena; he would often switch between two or three shapes throughout a single game – dependent on opposition. His Bayern side were often coined as a ‘chameleon’ in German competition. In his second season at the Etihad, we are starting to see how effective this can be. City have switched between both a 4-3-3 and a 3-4-3 so far this season, with the shapes often splitting in to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-2-1 in the latter stages of some of the games. Moreover, the players seem comfortable with this, after spending a hectic pre-season spanning America, Asia and Iceland. On top of that, there has been some very impressive cameo from City Academy graduates Brahim and Phil Foden. Both starred throughout pre-season, and have earned a place in the majority of the matchday squads thus far. The long term plan goes beyond just the transfer activity. With the exit of the promising Ihenacho, City need to show why the City Football Academy is worth the investment.
Additionally, how could we forget the blossoming partnership between Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus. The South American pair now hold the best goals to game ratio in PL history, scoring 11 between them so far this season. There were doubts whether Pep could implement them both in to one system, and whether Aguero had a long term future at the club. However, their manager has proven exactly why he is one of the best in the business. Jesus, still only 20, seems to be prospering with each game by playing next to the PL’s all time non-European scorer, and it is a partnership that could fire City to the title.
Both Manchester City and Pep Guardiola will long continue to be criticised by fans across the globe for buying their way to the title, but who wouldn’t? City have at least had the sense to clearly set out a long term strategy, in order to create a squad that can challenge at the top for years to come. Pep admitted towards the end of the window, that the clubs spending will not be as severe in the future, as this summer’s arrivals were brought in for their potential longevity as well as their immense ability. In a league were money is no object, it is medals that do the talking, and City will be aiming to shout the loudest by the time the season is over.
Published by Lewis McKenzie