Premier League champions in three out of the past four seasons, there seems to be no sign that the remorseless momentum of Manchester City is going to be checked any time soon. Chelsea’s surprise win in Porto may have denied them a treble but Pep Guardiola’s side head into the new campaign as strong favorites for glory and home and perhaps in Europe too. Here’s what we’re expecting to happen with them next season.
Another domestic title and European glory
Can there be any other winner of the Premier League this season? The chasing pack all look like they will have improved based on last season but the mark that City set for them last time is so great that it seems hard to imagine anyone else matching that. Pep Guardiola’s side may not have come close to the hundred point benchmark they set in 2018, but discount their stuttering start out of the blocks early in the campaign and they were a remorseless machine. This team only dropped four points between December and March.
By every measure there was a chasm between City and the rest of the league. They scored 10 more goals and conceded four fewer. No team created more chances or expected goals nor had more possession in the opposition penalty area. All that and they reached the summit of English football without anything approximating a top tier striker leading the way; their leading scorer was Ilkay Gundogan with 13.
At the other end the addition of Ruben Dias alongside John Stones turned City’s backline from a sieve to a steel wall around Ederson. If you were looking for an external shock that could spoil the title defense, it might just be Dias suffering a similar sort of season-ending injury to Virgil van Dijk’s last year.
The defense might not need further work. You could argue how much enhancement is required to the attack as well, but it may well get it through Jack Grealish, who is set to join for around $140million. He may yet be joined by Harry Kane as well, that missing piece through the middle for post-Sergio Aguero City.
Their additions will make for a squad well rounded enough to sweep all comers. Will that be enough to end their wait for a Champions League trophy? Naturally a series of two-legged fixtures are more easily dictated by the vagaries of chance than a 38 game season but right now there is no team in Europe with greater quality and depth than City. What is the most convincing argument against them not winning the Champions League? That their manager will ‘do a Pep’ overcomplicating a match that his side could win playing their usual game? It might happen, but even for this column it would be too bold to just assume Guardiola will keep his team from glory.
De Bruyne rises up the scoring charts
This prediction comes with a caveat, that being that Kane does not join from Tottenham. We’ll examine that in more depth in our Spurs season preview and certainly it seems credible that he could be in either sky blue or white come September 1. But if there is no deal to be made for Kane then someone is going to have to carry the scoring burden that was once Sergio Aguero’s.
Maybe that is Gabriel Jesus, but the Brazilian seems to hold ever less of Guardiola’s trust the longer he stays at Manchester City. There is clearly something to Jesus, whose 0.65 xG per 90 minutes over the past three seasons is the highest of any player to have played over 500 minutes. He is also, as his manager will often point out, one of the best pressing forwards in the world game.
And yet the periods where City really appeared to have bottled lightning last season came with Kevin De Bruyne as the focal point of their attack, not necessarily the false nine that any unorthodox striker gets labelled with if they play through the middle, but more of an extremely advanced 10 or a roaming playmaker who would open space for runners in behind. As a side note, it is therefore easy to see why Kane is so admired by Guardiola even at his age relatively advanced age.
Though he may not have been that traditional striker he certainly got himself into scoring positions. Opta tracking data logs five matches in which De Bruyne played as a center forward for City last season, games in which his non penalty xG per 90 was a thoroughly impressive 0.41, albeit somewhat pumped up by an outstanding performance against Chelsea in the Premier League. He was taking shots at volume, around 3.5 per 90 minutes which is comparable with the number taken by someone like Harry Kane, and a player of his technical excellence is inevitably going to hit the target at a decent rate.
In whatever position, De Bruyne showed a greater eye for shots last season. His xG per 90 in the Premier League increasing from 0.19 to 0.31. He may not have scored with as much regularity but he was getting in positions to do so more regularly. Put him in an advanced position consistently and there is no reason that he could not comfortably exceed his best goal return in a Premier League season, 13 in 2019-20. Indeed a top five berth in the assist and scoring charts does not feel like something beyond the realms of imagination.
More penalty hilarity
Whatever it is about Manchester City and penalties, long may it continue. Much focus has naturally been on their inability to convert the numerous opportunities they create for themselves from the spot; over the last three Premier League and Champions League campaigns they have won 33 penalties and converted just 21 (an average side would score around five more). The roll call of technically exceptional footballers who somehow lose the ability to put the ball in the net from 18 yards out is growing ever longer: Aguero, Gundogan, De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling have all fluffed their lines.
What might be more remarkable, however, is just how many spot kicks City have contrived to concede. Only West Bromwich Albion gave up more penalties to opponents than the 10 Guardiola’s men did with a quarter of the Premier League goals they conceded coming from the spot. Though, admittedly, that number is bolstered by the three they conceded in one game to Leicester City.
Guardiola might be able to control for the errors at that end, but at the other it is genuinely hard to see City regressing to the mean. Penalties have become such a millstone on the neck of these players, such that everyone has had to have a go from 12 yards out just to see if they can break the curse. So much of what happens at these spot kicks is decided by mentality and last season you could see the players in sky blue bearing the weight of past misses, the goalkeepers in front of them growing that inch taller in the knowledge that psyching their opponents out might force an error.
As City sweep all before them penalties might just be a wonderful reminder of the humanity of this super team, a reminder that even the greatest of heroes can be made mortal for just a moment.