Manchester City have set standards above almost anyone in Premier League history over the past few years, but all of a sudden, they face a summer rebuild.
It is natural to drop off from the level they were at between 2017 and 2019; Pep Guardiola may be the world’s greatest coach, but he can also be incredibly intense and, in some cases, overbearing. To compete at the very top over a long period, with the work rate he instils in his players, is very difficult. Nine league defeats shows that edge just hasn’t been there recently.
City accumulated a whopping 198 points over the two Premier League seasons prior to this one, which drew to a close on Sunday. A year ago, they had recorded the two highest tallies in the division’s history; it is testament to the relentlessness of Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool that they have been able to keep up with the Cityzens, let alone topple them as they did so emphatically in this most unusual campaign, by registering 99 points.
As the old adage goes, you should strengthen from a position of strength. Guardiola has spent huge amounts of money as City boss, but only in one summer has he pushed the boat out on the level many expect from a club as rich as the outgoing Premier League champions. It was ahead of 2017-18, after a disappointing first season under Guardiola, during which an ageing team finished third on 78 points, just three less than they recorded this term. Demands put on a squad largely consisting of players left by Manuel Pellegrini proved too high; a huge outlay was splashed on Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy, Ederson and Bernardo Silva in particular.
Guardiola was armed with a goalkeeper who possessed the passing technique of a seasoned holding midfield player, another playmaker who could drift into spaces created by pacy wide-men and two dynamic fullbacks. The team were transformed and became dominant beyond belief.
Two absolutely crucial pieces of the puzzle had settled already, though. Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane held the key in attack, stretching and distorting the pitch as City attacked. On both sides, they brought the possibility to drag defences across the pitch, allowing space for the switch. Sterling netted 18 league goals and registered 10 assists; Sane had 10 goals and 15 assists. Quite often, one man would get to the byline and cross for the other, who was in acres of space and ready to tap in. City and Guardiola had mastered attacking against low blocks. Don’t play through them, play around them; the opposition would fall into the trap of ‘tipping’ the field.
Yet, three years on, City face a difficult build up to a title challenge. Not only is there a gap to close to Liverpool already, but they are starting a step back from where they were just a few weeks ago. Sane had been out for months; he and Aymeric Laporte missing much of the season was one of many factors in City’s struggles to hold off the Reds. Sane has returned to fitness, but Bayern Munich will be the beneficiaries, having signed him for £54million this month. In the circumstances, despite Sane’s obvious importance to Guardiola’s system, this deal is something of a rarity; it suits all parties in the circumstances.
Yes, City longed to keep him, proof of which comes in the form of a rejected contract offer, but having made his desire to return to Germany clear, a £17million profit, via ad-ons, on a recently injured player with one year remaining on his deal is good business. Sane gets a fresh challenge, and Bayern get a world class player approaching his prime, at the age of 24, tied to a five-year contract.
In 2018, City brought Riyad Mahrez in as their only major signing, adding an extra layer of competition in Sane’s position. In 2019, Spanish midfielder Rodri was brought in as a long-term successor to Fernandinho at the base of the midfield, alongside fullback Joao Cancelo from Juventus, but Guardiola would live to regret not replacing outgoing captain Vincent Kompany, especially after Laporte’s injury. This summer, David Silva is departing, but Phil Foden has already stepped into his boots.
Plugging gaps hasn’t been an issue for City, but they need another statement summer in order to build properly. Their first job will be replacing Sane, meaning they can’t hit the ground running in an already difficult window for external reasons. Guardiola is so particular about the players he picks and buys; rather than building a system around them, he goes the other way and recruits in line with his philosophy. That means any new winger will have to specialise in stretching the play; Mahrez, as good as he has been, is more at home dribbling closer to goal.
News of Ferran Torres’ proposed move from Valencia taking one step closer on Wednesday is positive, but he is unlikely to reproduce the role Sane performed so well. Again, his preference is to cut inside and create space for fullbacks. If Guardiola wants to find the perfect foil for Sterling, to get back to tipping the pitch, perhaps he should look at Bayer Leverkusen’s Leon Bailey.
There is plenty of noise around Kai Havertz right now, and though Bailey has suffered from inconsistency during his time at the BayArena, he is certainly a player who can be moulded by Guardiola. At 22, he is younger than Sane, but has shown similar prowess in playing as a winger on his natural side, the left, which is the same as his prospective predecessor. His pace is blistering, and in just 12 appearances in a disrupted Bundesliga campaign, he still attempted three dribbles per game, more than Sterling, who averaged 1.8 per game. He created five chances to Sterling’s nine in the Premier League every 90 minutes, but the raw evidence of how he could fit in is there to be seen.
This is a big summer for City. They are, in effect, back where they started in 2017, albeit with a much stronger hand to play. To usurp Liverpool, they must improve defensively, but also regain that attacking potency they were missing when Sane was injured and must now permanently replace.