Manchester City’s owners crave sustained success both at home and in Europe. This season, following the appointment of Manuel Pellegrini in the summer, they have made improvements to their game, practicing a new, expansive style of play that has won them plaudits across the football world.
One trophy is already secure, and their advancement through to the last 16 of the Champions League represents progress after two consecutive group-stage exits under Roberto Mancini. However, there’s still work to be done before they can be considered one of the world’s elite club sides.
Most observers agree that Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid are currently the best teams in Europe, so how do City compare?
What’s become quite clear over the course of this season—a campaign which has seen City battle on four fronts until fairly recently—is that they rely heavily on a core of seven world-class players, and when one or more of those players are missing they struggle to play at the level required to be a dominant force. City lack the squad depth of some of their Champions League rivals.
Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri, David Silva and Sergio Aguero would all get into the starting XIs at the majority of top clubs. They have each proven during their time at City that they have the quality needed be part of a side capable of winning the Champions League, and Pellegrini and director Txiki Begiristain will be desperate to add players that will complement them when they enter the market again this summer.
Only by targeting the right players in the right positions will City be able to match Europe's top three teams in the near future.
Bayern Munich have quality in every position. Manuel Neuer is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world and offers a solid platform on which their attacking players can build. Contrast that with the situation at City, where Joe Hart was dropped earlier in the season after a raft of errors, and already Bayern have an advantage over the Blues.
Hart has recovered his form and looks far less uncertain than he did during that period before his recall in December, but he still cannot dominate and command his area with anywhere near the authority Neuer does.
Similarly at Barcelona, Victor Valdes has had an excellent season. However, notwithstanding his recent knee injury, he is set to leave in the summer, so replacing him adequately is of major importance.
Real Madrid, meanwhile, have two excellent keepers fighting for the No.1 spot. The level of competition between Diego Lopez and Iker Casillas means means both need to play well when given an opportunity—a situation City can only dream of at the moment with Costel Pantilimon, their second-choice stopper, nowhere near the level required at a top club.
Defensively, City have struggled somewhat at times this season, although five clean sheets in their last six Premier League games suggests improvement. A settled, long-term partner for Kompany is surely a priority this summer, as is a left-back who is both solid defensively and capable of providing them with the kind of attacking threat their system demands from full-backs.
Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich all have strength right across their back lines. Bayern Munich in particular can choose from Dante, Daniel Van Buyten, Jerome Boateng, Holger Badstuber, David Alaba, Rafinha and Philipp Lahm (although Lahm's excellence and versatility sees him employed as a midfielder too). It's an outstanding pool of defensive talent that dwarfs City's options.
City's strength lies in midfield—an area where they arguably can match Europe's elite. Their first-choice midfield of Nasri, Silva, Fernandinho and Toure has a great blend of strength, pace and guile. And with the pace and width Jesus Navas can offer and the industry and effectiveness of James Milner, City have strength and depth in midfield.
Even Barcelona, with Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, aren't necessarily superior to City in that department. Silva has further upped his performance level this season, and the understanding that has developed between Toure and Fernandinho has been excellent, meaning City have raw power and wonderful intelligence in abundance.
In Aguero, City have one of the finest strikers in Europe. His pace and nervelessness in front of goal make him a feared forward—one capable of creating something from nothing. He's more than a match for anything the best sides in Europe have to offer.
With Edin Dzeko, Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic competing for a place alongside the Argentine, City have a wealth of options, but a mixture of inconsistent form and fitness troubles has meant that trio has sometimes flattered to deceive and left City short. If Pellegrini can keep his strikers fit and in form next season, City would have a blend of front men to rival any in world football.
It's a vitally important summer for Begiristain and Pellegrini. Get the right players in to complement their core of world-class players and City could be a force. Get it wrong and City face the prospect of stagnating, a situation which could lead to some unrest among their best players, who deserve and crave consistent success.
As well as recruiting top players, it's important that City forge a distinctive brand of football, too. The most positive element of Pellegrini’s short tenure thus far has been the implementation of an attacking and attractive style of play, something the club’s owners and board were desperate to see introduced before his arrival.
Begiristain made his name as a director of football when he was part of the team Joan Laporta put together after his election as Barcelona president in 2003, an era which saw Barcelona establish a blueprint for wonderful attacking football that became the envy of the world.
Working firstly with Frank Rijkaard and later with Pep Guardiola, Barcelona developed a distinct playing style built on passing and movement from the back. Every player had to be comfortable in possession and had to want the ball—an approach that brought them huge success and still defines them to this day.
Begiristain wants to see a similar situation at City, with every side from youth sides to first team playing the same way. Pellegrini’s introduction of a high-intensity 4-2-2-2 formation that sees City press high up the field has seen them dominate matches against some of the best teams in England, so continuing that trend is high on the list of club priorities.
If City can continue to develop their style and make it a part of the culture of the club, it will bring benefits. The best attacking players will want to be part of a set-up that values attractive football, and the club's youth players will know exactly what's expected of them if they are promoted to the first team.
Indeed, youth development is set to be a key factor in City's attempts to catch the best club sides. While Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have brought through players capable of playing at the very highest level for some time now, City's production has stalled in recent seasons.
Before Sheikh Mansour bought the club, City often brought through academy players such as Micah Richards, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Michael Johnson, but the huge investment in their first team has seen their academy struggle to keep up. It's something the club desperately want to change.
This summer, City are expected to open the Etihad Campus, a 80-acre site that will be home to every single player at the club, from 400 youth players aged eight and upwards right through to the first team. It will have a team hotel, classrooms and facilities, a medical centre and a 7,000-seater stadium all on a state-of-the-art location.
If everything goes to plan, the club should be producing their own world-class talent before too long, something they hope will see them compete more aggressively with the most established big-name teams in Europe.
In the short term, City need to build a stronger squad of players if they want to be in the elite group of teams that habitually challenge for domestic titles and the Champions League. In the long term, the continuation of their attacking game and the development of their academy is essential.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here: @RobPollard_.