Ten wins in succession at the start of the Catalan’s reign had led to misplaced and frankly bizarre claims that City would stroll to the Premier League title unchallenged and emulate Arsenal’s Invincibles, despite finishing last season with just 66 points. Leaps like that are unheralded, Leicester City notwithstanding, since the English top flight was reformatted in 1992, and it’s clear City will face a battle this year to finish at the top of the table.
Their squad remains somewhat unbalanced, despite what looks like an excellent summer spend. Some poor transfer windows over recent seasons left them in need of major surgery, much of which has been carried out. However, some holes remain, most notably in the full-back areas.
That weakness may well be badly exposed in the coming weeks. Bacary Sagna suffered a hamstring tear on international duty on Friday and is set to miss the next month. Pablo Zabaleta, his obvious replacement, is no longer the player he once was. City have a clear failing their opponents will look to target.
And it isn’t an easy run of fixtures they need to negotiate without Sagna. The Frenchman is likely to miss Premier League matches against Everton, West Brom and Southampton, as well as the two crucial Champions League games against Barcelona and the EFL Cup tie away at Manchester United.
It’s too early to talk about a season-defining period—but this, make no mistake, is a vital few weeks.
It’s a situation that highlights the need for City to invest further. Sagna, 33, has been a steady influence over the past year, but a long-term option he quite clearly is not. Zabaleta, two years his junior, looks to have run out of steam and has been struggling for some time.
He has lost pace and is being beaten too often and too easily. The picture of Danny Rose pulling away from him during the game at White Hart Lane last week, although only a snapshot and therefore hardly overwhelming evidence of a player’s decline, seems incredibly poignant right now.
It was possibly short-sighted of City not to address the issue this summer—but after significant investment in the squad, it may have been a step too far. Too much change and upheaval in one transfer window can be detrimental.
Pablo Maffeo remains an option, but like any young player with limited experience, too much cannot be expected. The jump from academy level to first team has rarely been so challenging for promising young City players. They are expected to come in alongside world-class operators on the biggest stage, with the pressure for results intense. City were rightly lauded for their youth record prior to the takeover of the club in 2008—but the climate for doing so was much more agreeable back then.
That’s not to say the 19-year-old couldn’t thrive given the chance. He looks well-equipped and has been impressing in the youth setup for some time. He’s quick, athletic and gets forward superbly well. Guardiola clearly likes him, having given him games in pre-season and using him in the Champions League home match with Steaua Bucharest—but whether he’s ready for sustained first-team action is questionable.
Entering the transfer market next summer seems a likely option. Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin, 21, is the most obvious candidate, a player with sensational pace and ability, schooled in the Barcelona way of playing having spent his formative years at La Masia before joining the north London side in 2011. He would be an ideal fit for Guardiola’s City.
According to the Sun's Lee Astley, Barcelona and City both made enquiries in the summer. Arsenal are aware that neither side are likely to go away and are preparing to offer a new contract.
If Barcelona renew their interest in June, it would, of course, make things difficult for City. The lure of returning to his boyhood club and playing for arguably the finest team in world football would surely be difficult for Bellerin to turn down.
"We've already seen him as a Cule [Barcelona follower]," Barcelona vice-president Jordi Mestre said recently. "He's a great player, there's no doubt about that.
"Wenger convinced him to move and promised him something which we couldn't.
"We could not promise him that within two years he would be playing in Dani Alves' place."
Alves joined Juventus in the summer, and there’s a feeling in Catalonia that Bellerin would be the ideal replacement after watching his meteoric rise at Arsenal closely.
However, City may possess a secret weapon. Mikel Arteta’s move from Arsenal’s playing staff to Guardiola’s backroom team has brought Premier League know-how and tactical insight—but his close relationship with Bellerin could help them land a priority signing, too.
Bellerin credits Arteta with his seamless integration into life at the Arsenal, saying in May: “Mikel and his wife adopted me when I arrived.
"I was a kid, and he has been like a father to me. He has been instrumental in my integration into the Arsenal."
Bellerin is everything City need. He’s quick, intelligent and technically gifted, as well as young and capable of further development. His rise at Arsenal has been spectacular, going from a relative unknown in 2013 to one of the finest right-backs in Europe.
Defensively and offensively he offers plenty—a modern full-back who has benefited from Arsene Wenger’s approach to the game. The Arsenal boss is willing to give young players a chance, and he coaches them in the right way, encouraging expression on the ball in an open, attacking side.
Arsenal will try to resist any attempt from City to sign him. Their fans have seen a number of first-team stars leave the Emirates for the Etihad in recent seasons, and it’s seen as a sign of weakness, of deterioration on their part and an improvement at City.
But they offer a stronger guarantee of success, which every player is driven by. Their training-ground facility, world-class medical centre and outstanding player-care department also make them an attractive proposition. If City can table an offer that convinces Arsenal to sell, they would stand a chance of landing him.
He’s exactly what they need in the long term—but in the short term, City face a difficult test of their current squad.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and follows the club from a Manchester base. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard_.