Manchester City: 20 Thoughts for the Season
It's a new era at 2012 Premier League champions Manchester City under Manuel Pellegrini.
They will be itching to reclaim their title from Manchester United and will want to make a splash in Europe. Four big-money signings so far have signalled their intentions, but there’s lots of interest in the club despite the change of managers at United and Chelsea.
Here are a few talking points on what may lie in store for the Blues this season.
A Clean Slate
With a new manager having come in during the summer break, does that mean that all players have a clean slate with regards to their chances?
Manuel Pellegrini has had a full preseason to assess his squad, bolstered by new faces in Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo, and given his reputation for an analytical approach to the game, I imagine that everyone will be equal in his eyes.
Edin Dzeko, increasingly on the fringes especially in the big games under Mancini, has impressed in preseason. Aleks Kolarov, frequently linked with a move away over the last year, looks to be challenging Gael Clichy at left back and Micah Richards may give Pablo Zabaleta a battle at right back after last season was ruined by a knee injury.
Then again, Pellegrini has to hit the ground running when the season proper starts. Whether he shuffles his pack or sticks to a core team, his famed man-management skills will be needed from the outset.
John Guidetti to Get a Chance?
Swedish striker John Guidetti has been residing in the files marked "promising" and "highly rated" for a few years now, but whether this season is the one where he makes an impact at City is questionable.
A season-long loan at Feyenoord in 2011-12 yielded an impressive 20 goals in 21 starts, including three hat-tricks in four games. Last season was written off due to a combination of illness and injury, but with the arrival of top-drawer strikers in Negredo and Jovetic to cope with—plus the revival of a hungry-again Dzeko—the 21-year-old has a long road ahead of him.
Guidetti, whose sole start for City was in a Carling Cup defeat at West Brom in September 2010, said he will be fully fit in two months on the preseason tour, when not being chucked into a swimming pool by team mates (what larks!), as picked up by the Daily Mail.
City to go for 4-3-3?
In May, City chief executive Ferran Soriano outlined a vision for "a football concept…shared by the whole organisation" in the Daily Telegraph, taken to mean a preference for 4-3-3 a la Barcelona.
Given Pellegrini’s recruitment, will he go along with any instructions from above or will he be his own man? If he finds a method that he thinks works better, it would be a big call for Pellegrini to go his own way so soon in his tenure.
However, his summer signings, plus the players already at City, give Pellegrini flexibility. A midfield three of, say, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure and Milner could back up a front three of Navas, Dzeko and Silva but there is a myriad of combinations possible.
It’s a numbers game and City have the depth to chop and change—but memories of Mancini’s 3-5-2 at times last season are painfully fresh.
The Best Kompany
A warrior on the pitch, an ambassador off it, City skipper Vincent Kompany leads by example, but his form last season was a notch down on the heights he touched a year earlier and he will have to get back up there as City look to reclaim their crown this term.
There were mitigating circumstances—a calf injury ruled the Belgian out for a vital period early this year that coincided with City losing ground on United in the Premier League race. But his increased profile on and off the pitch, due to his excellent displays in defence and his helping spread the City brand globally, mean he is under great scrutiny.
An articulate display on BBC’s Match of the Day was typical, and his frank, honest post-match interviews, even on the sanitised forum of City’s own media channels, are a refreshing change to the anodyne offerings we have to suffer from many modern sports stars.
Champions League Success on the Agenda
City’s two attempts at the Champions League have ended at the group stage, nowhere near good enough for the owners with investment they had made.
The knockout phase is an absolute must for Pellegrini’s side this season, with the quarter-finals a realistic target for the talent in their ranks.
City’s players looked strangely out of their depth at times in Europe, which proved to be an Achilles heel for Mancini, but Pellegrini has some pedigree at this level and this was probably part of the reasoning in his appointment.
But it will be tough—their poor record means they could get a tough draw, so hard nights on the road like those in Munich, Naples, Dortmund and Madrid could beckon. And while European success is a priority for the club’s owners, the Etihad Stadium faithful would trade it to put one over on Manchester United in the Premier League.
Prestige is all-important to City’s owners and they will be looking to Manuel Pellegrini to restore some of this commodity after the 2012-13 season ended badly for the club.
Finishing second-best to United in the Premier League, failing in Europe and trudging off at a rain-soaked Wembley having lost the FA Cup final to relegated Wigan did not make City look good on a global scale.
But spending £90m plus on four players (so far) and installing a new boss with a mandate to play with a touch more style make the intentions of the ownership abundantly clear.
That said, I don’t think a return to the old City mentality of "rather lose 4-3 than 1-0" suits the club’s expectations these days.
Cup Chance for Youngsters?
The priorities will be the Premier League and the Champions League, which means the FA Cup and the Capital One Cup (the League Cup, in old money) will have to go into the "nice to have" category.
Make no mistake, the loss in the FA Cup final hurt the club hard and the venerable competition still appeals to huge swathes of fans around the world. Wigan’s win pleased the romantics, but it was a blow to Blues fans. However, even a win for City would not have been enough to save Roberto Mancini.
Coming so early in the season, the Capital One Cup could be seen as a distraction, but it may prove to be a rare chance for some of the younger players to make an impression.
John Guidetti, Abdul Razak, Dennis Suarez and Marcos Lopes—if they are not on loan—could get the nod and, if they do, they need to take their chance as the odds are their opportunities will be few and far between.
Lopes scored as a sub in the FA Cup third round win over Watford in January, and with the owners demanding he take an interest in the younger players, Pellegrini may be shuffling his pack earlier this coming season.
Micah Richards Back in the Reckoning
I was lucky enough to see Micah Richards’ last-minute headed goal at Villa Park live in early 2006 and I’ve taken an interest in his progress ever since.
Pablo Zabaleta ended last term as first-choice right-back, but the Pellegrini new broom gives the England international a chance as the season begins, despite the redoubtable Argentine’s fine recent form.
Richards’ days as a centre-back seem to be over, so he will have stay fit and return to his form of a few seasons back to displace his main rival at right-back.
His status as one of the few City Academy products to stay around the first team set-up in recent years is interesting as the club looks further afield these days for new young talent, and his too-low total of just 13 England caps may also motivate the 25-year-old in the season leading up to the World Cup—if they qualify…
Cliche time—Roberto Mancini "lost the dressing room" in what turned out to be his final season in charge, leading to the club’s now famous use of the word "holistic" in the statement announcing his dismissal.
For Manuel Pellegrini, this translates into better man-management to bring some success back to City in the short term and Samir Nasri recently revealed that the Chilean’s approach suits the squad so far.
Players can be sensitive souls, so touchy-feely will appeal more than the Italian’s autocratic approach. Sven-Goran Erikkson brought a similar method with him to City and, in the early days, it worked before tailing off horribly.
There are bound to be tough moments for City this season, both in public and behind closed doors at the Carrington training ground, and how Pellegrini deals with them will be fascinating.
City's Striker Options
In Aguero, Dzeko, Negredo and Jovetic City have four strikers who have cost…well, don’t go there. An awful lot.
Realistically only two will start any match, or quite possibly just one if Pellegrini opts for creativity either side of an out and out front man. That leaves an awful lot of talent and ego kicking its heels on the bench, which is where the Pellegrini man-management skills will have to come out.
But the players on the outer need to give off the right body language, and make the most of their chance when it comes to give the manager a selection headache. Aguero’s knee injury, as reported by the Daily Mail’s Paul Collins, may see him miss the start of the season, handing the others the opportunity to nudge ahead of the Argentine.
Edin Dzeko: A New Lease of Life
Seemingly frozen out in the latter stages of Mancini’s reign, Edin Dzeko has responded well to Manuel Pellegrini to the tune of four goals in City’s globe-straddling preseason fixtures.
While reading the runes after preseason can be misleading, the Bosnian looks reinvigorated. Is it the Chilean’s approach? Is it the competition from Jovetic and Negredo? Is it the service from Navas? Until Bleacher Report is given unlimited access to the training ground at Carrington, we won’t know for certain what it is, but so far so good for the striker.
His legion of fans in his homeland will not rest until their man is the first choice at City—some of the vitriol aimed at Mancini via social media when he omitted Dzeko had to be seen to be believed—but in the era of squad rotation, that’s unlikely.
Just don’t mention that penalty against Sunderland in Hong Kong.
The general mood abroad last season was that David Silva had not quite hit the heights he had reached since joining the Blues from Valencia in 2010.
Neither were City quite at the form that had swept them to the title the year before, but maybe the Spain international suffered from being a main creative outlet for Roberto Mancini’s side.
With the arrival of Jesus Navas, the pressure may be off Silva to be the main source of threats and assists, and we may see more of the sublime skills he showed off a couple of years back.
New Boys Need to Cope
The Premier League is an unforgiving place and City’s new signings will have to "step up to the plate," as they say, from the outset in their new environment.
Midfield can be a real battleground in English football and this is where Fernandinho will be plying his trade against some seasoned practitioners. The early signs from preseason look good, with the Brazilian showing some artistry as well as bite.
The departure of Nigel de Jong a year ago left City without a bit of aggression, but as good as the Dutchman was in his role, he was not one to spray passes forward from deep.
Fernandinho fits the bill with a more attacking approach on the cards, but in a blatant return to cliche-land, can he do it on a cold Tuesday night at Stoke? There won’t be any margin for error for him and the three other (so far) new boys.
Pellegrini’s mandate is to attack and play with more verve than City did in the death throes of Mancini’s reign, and the signing of Jesus Navas could go a long way to help with that.
The Chilean manager will have seen plenty of Navas in Spain, so the Spain international has not come to make up the numbers.
Indeed, he will ease the creative burden that’s been on the shoulders of compatriot David Silva and add a dimension of width that’s been missing from City since Adam Johnson was discarded and Scott Sinclair ignored.
The 27-year-old is a cut above those two and has several years of experience under his belt, so City fans will hope that he hits the ground running and keeps it going through an arduous English season.
City and the Media
City’s relations with the media and their public image will not help them win any silverware, but it will provide an interesting sideshow as the season develops.
Roberto Mancini may not have been popular with some players or some City staff, but City fans and the media pack that covers the Blues were in rare accord over the Italian—by and large, they liked him.
His departure was played out clumsily in public, but the change of managers at United and Chelsea has seen City pushed down the media agenda.
That’s how the club will like it. Their summer signings—north of £90m of spending so far—have slipped under the radar compared with the Moyes, Mourinho and Rooney stories as they are not "sexy" names. Pellegrini has come across well so far and has also had the death of his mother to deal with, but how he bears up to press scrutiny once the season starts will worth watching.
Defensive Cover Needed?
With Nastasic a victim of an, ahem, "old-fashioned" pitch in Hong Kong, City may be looking at adding another defender to their ranks.
The centre-back, who enjoyed a decent first season at City, looks to have been sidelined after falling awkwardly against Sunderland—don’t expect official confirmation of a length of absence just yet, clubs don’t operate like that these days.
Real Madrid’s Pepe has been strongly linked and Manuel Pellegrini refused to be drawn on the matter on the preseason tour.
Do City go for an experienced player in the short term? It didn’t work out with Maicon last season, and Javi Garcia or even Jack Rodwell could do a job in the back four. But with the stakes so high, Pellegrini could well opt for adding to his defence to be on the safe side.
By the time of the second international break in October, City will have played seven Premier league games, with four at home including the derby against United.
Newcastle, Hull, United and Everton offer City a good chance to get the Pellegrini era off to a good start. Solid home form will be a necessity; they were impregnable for two years at the Etihad Stadium under the new man’s predecessor—until Robin van Persie’s late free-kick in last season's derby.
City often kept their visitors at arms’ length in some straightforward home wins under Mancini against the teams further down the table, and this squad has it in them to steamroller the Premier League’s weaker sides.
The top four clashes will be a different story and that home derby already looks like being a pivotal moment in the season.
Pellegrini needs to be wary of some of English football’s pitfalls, namely the tricky away day at opposition further down the table.
Sunderland and Southampton away were galling defeats last season, and a few more along those lines could hole City’s title hopes below the waterline.
Most of this squad know how to deal with the hurly-burly of English football—in theory—but the great thing about the game over here is the possibility for random results.
On the flip side, Mancini could still wring good performances out of his disaffected troops—think the win at Old Trafford in April. A few similar tactical masterstrokes on the road from his successor will be a big help.
Will Younger Players Break Through?
Pellegrini has been charged with showing a greater interest in younger players than his predecessor, who allegedly never visited the club’s Academy during his time in charge.
But with such a stellar squad at his disposal, the likelihood of Pellegrini dipping into the club’s resources is slight. In addition to that, the notion of what a City Academy product is has changed as the club’s ambitions have grown.
“A 'City' player will be like Joe Hart, who has been there a while. They love the club and can be the core of the squad,” chief exec Ferran Soriano told the Independent’s Ian Herbert in May – Hart was bought from Shrewsbury aged 19, and if City do unearth a local talent it will be a bonus – they cast their net far and wide these days, as all their rivals do.
Marcos Lopes, Dennis Suarez, Abdul Razak and even Ghanaian midfielder Mohammed Abu may be around the squad, but you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled to see them in the first team. A decent run in the Capital One Cup may be their best chance this season.
Out of the Limelight
The departure of Carlos Tevez, six months after the exit of Mario Balotelli, has shorn the squad of a player who attracted the wrong sort of publicity off the pitch.
Even after his move to Juventus, Tevez and City were back in the media with the fall-out from his driving-related court case. Whatever was going on behind the scenes, Tevez made a big contribution on the pitch, whereas Balotelli’s days in the sun were few and far between.
City’s owners are at pains for the club to present a smiling face to the world, especially with some tasty new markets around the world in the sights of their commercial operation. Success on the pitch and no hassles away from it are what they require after the publicity of the last couple of years.