(Writer’s Note: This is the 20th and final preview of 20 EPL teams in 20 days ahead of Friday’s league-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City. Links to previous teams’ previews can be found at the bottom of the page.)
MANCHESTER CITY CITIZENS
Manager: Pep Guardiola (Hire Date: July 1, 2016)
Tenure Length: 10th/20 in Premier League and 30th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 32-4-2, 100 points, 1st in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 106
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-79
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 17 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 2002
Last Relegation: 2001 (Premier League to First Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Quarterfinal loss (Liverpool)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Champions
2017-18 FA Cup: Fifth-round loss (Wigan Athletic)
Manchester City sputtered out of the gate, having to grind out a 2-0 victory at promoted Brighton and Hove Albion to start the season and then was held to a 1-1 draw by Everton to open its home slate as it played 44 minutes down a man after Kyle Walker was given his second yellow card late in the first half.
Then came the winning. A lot of winning.
City reeled off 11 consecutive victories across all competitions with some ridiculous score lines along the way. 5-0 over Liverpool. 4-0 at Feyenoord to open Champions League play. 6-0 at Watford. 5-0 versus Crystal Palace. 7-2 over Stoke City. The Citizens trailed for all of eight minutes of the 990 during their winning streak, which finally came to the end in the Carabao Cup against Wolverhampton, which pushed them to penalties before falling.
Another eight victories followed before a 2-1 loss at Shakhtar Donetsk in a dead rubber to complete Champions League play marked City’s first loss of the 2017-18 season. The good news was that it came at the perfect time ahead of their first Manchester derby at Old Trafford, where Guardiola’s men recorded a 2-1 victory to open up an 11-point chasm between the teams after 16 matches.
City set a Premier League record with their 15th consecutive league win by thrashing Swansea City 4-0 in Wales. They would push that run to 18 matches before a scoreless draw at Crystal Palace on New Year’s Eve in which the flash point was a horrific challenge on Kevin De Bruyne by Palace’s Jason Puncheon in the final minutes that the Belgium international was fortunate to escape serious injury from.
The dream of matching Arsenal’s “Invincibles” would end a fortnight later at Anfield, where Liverpool ran riot for a nine-minute stretch and scored three times to take a 4-1 lead before holding out for a 4-3 victory. That would be a foreshadowing of things to come not in the Premier League race, which was being readily conceded to City despite it being only mid-January, but in Champions League.
Guardiola’s charges would resume their winning ways, reeling off four on the bounce and reaching the Carabao Cup final before a 1-1 draw at always-stubborn Burnley. Manchester City made quick work of Swiss side FC Basel in the round of 16 in Champions League play, winning 4-0 on the road in the first leg to render their 2-1 second-leg defeat moot.
In between, however, was a shocking FA Cup exit at the hands of Wigan Athletic, which brought back the nightmares of losing to a relegated Latics side in the 2013 final. Manchester City took its frustrations of that loss out on Arsenal in emphatic fashion, winning the Carabao Cup final 3-0 at Wembley before handing out another 3-0 beating at the Emirates four days later.
Now champion-elect, Manchester City drew arguably the worst of the remaining Champions League sides in Liverpool, though it was still a winnable tie. Guardiola, however, made his largest mistake of the entire season in the first leg at Anfield, inexplicably starting Ilkay Gundogan as a holding midfielder over Raheem Sterling.
Within a half-hour, Liverpool turned Anfield into the vaunted cauldron it always has been for high-pressure matches and fashioned itself a 3-0 lead. The damage done, the Reds added insult to injury by holding that lead and putting up a clean sheet to make City do the heavy lifting in the second leg.
The hangover of that loss did not carry into the second Manchester derby as City attempted to become the first team to clinch a Premier League title in their 32nd match. The chance to do it against their eternal rivals United at home was a once in a lifetime opportunity that seemed to good to pass up.
For the first half-hour, it was exactly that as Vincent Kompany and Gundogan scored six minutes apart for a two-goal lead, and City nearly ran United out of the Etihad the remainder of the first half. But just as suddenly, the match swung red. Paul Pogba scored twice in two minutes, and Chris Smalling was first to a free kick and beat Ederson and both history and a title would have to wait as United salvaged some pride with a 3-2 victory.
There was no time to wallow, though, as Liverpool was coming to the Etihad and a three-goal deficit had to be overturned. Gabriel Jesus scored in the second minute, and City just applied pressure in waves at Liverpool looking for a second to further the momentum and gain everything to play for. They thought it came when Leroy Sane scored just before halftime, but it was incorrectly chalked off for offsides.
Guardiola went ballistic in complaining to referee Mateu Lahoz, earning himself an ejection at halftime. The combination of the disallowed goal and Guardiola’s thunder and banishment sapped City, who gave up a back-breaking goal to Mohamed Salah before the hour and another to Roberto Firmino late as Liverpool advanced 5-1 on aggregate.
All that was left for City was to play for history and a re-writing of the Premier League record book. They scored 12 goals in winning their next three matches, surpassing the century mark in a 4-1 hiding of West Ham United in their 35th match.
The Premier League presentation trophy was the highlight of a scoreless draw against Huddersfield Town, which all but secured a second season in the top flight with the valuable point, and it left City needing two wins to become the first Premier League team to achieve 100 points.
The first win was a straightforward 3-1 home victory over Brighton and Hove Albion, and the second took a little work. City left it very late as Jesus’ goal in the 94th minute provided the historic 1-0 victory at Southampton that made Guardiola’s side centurions. The 32nd win established a new Premier League record for victories, bettering the mark of Tottenham’s famous 1961 side.
POTENTIAL STARTING XI
The frightening realisation for the rest of the Premier League, and by extension England for domestic cups and Europe for Champions League play is Guardiola can arguably flex his side into any formation and any lineup he wants on a match-to-match basis.
For argument’s sake, the XI presented here is based on a 4-3-3. Look at the names out there. Now consider the names missing: Bernardo Silva. Aymeric Laporte. New signing Riyad Mahrez. Gundogan. Danilo. Phil Foden. Benjamin Mendy barely played last season due to a torn ACL, yet it is well known he is one of the best at his position and still was good enough to make France’s roster this summer.
A serious case can be made the weakest backup link is Claudio Bravo between the sticks.
If Guardiola opts for a three-man backline, Kompany or Stones gets sacrificed, and given how well Stones played in Russia, it would be hard to sit him even at the expense of Kompany, who himself had a solid run for Belgium when he was 100 percent. This is a team that is going to have 60 percent possession or better in all but a handful of league matches and domestic cups, and Guardiola will relish in the challenge of tinkering his team between those set-ups.
THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS
After spending and spending and spending the past two seasons to build a team Guardiola was confident could run a two-track course between Premier League and Champions League, this summer was refined and specific: Welcome, Mahrez.
The Algeria international’s arrival from Leicester City nearly came in the January window, but the deal feel through late. Six months and £60 million later, City finally got their man — arguably one of the most creative playmakers in the Premier League and the world.
What makes the move interesting is it is entirely possible Mahrez is little more than a rotation player on both tracks except for early in the season as players recover from World Cup responsibilities and again starting in December when the fixtures come fast and heavy. Still, his quality cannot be denied in being the driving force of Leicester City’s run to the Premier League title in 2016 and quarterfinal appearance in the subsequent Champions League.
Mahrez totaled 40 goals and 29 assists in all competitions in his last three seasons with the Foxes and was one of four players to rack up at least 35 goals and 20 assists in league play in that stretch along with Dele Alli, Roberto Firmino and Alexis Sanchez.
More grating to City’s rivals is the Citizens recouped more than half of that outlay by loaning out some of their promising younger players. Third-choice keeper Angus Gunn commanded almost £15 million in going to Southampton, while defenders Pablo Maffeo and Angelino nearly matched that total between them on loans to VfB Stuttgart and PSV Eindhoven, respectively.
Veteran midfielder Yaya Toure was released, and backup keeper Joe Hart is reportedly close to finalising a move to Burnley, which is in need at the position following a long-term shoulder injury to Nick Pope.
THE GUY WORTH SEEING
Kevin De Bruyne (MF)
There is something about De Bruyne’s game that borders on ethereal. If it’s not the direct pass that leads to the goal, he often gets the “hockey assist” in making the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the goal.
Whether it is his vision to make passes few see, let alone successfully make, or his sense of timing when to take over a match in terms of trying to score, the Belgium international rightfully created a split in PFA voting last year and would have been a worthy winner had he not finished runner-up to another worthy winner in Liverpool’s Salah.
De Bruyne had a solid World Cup campaign in leading Belgium to a third-place finish in Russia, and with an embarrassment of riches around him in Aguero, Sterling, Jesus and now Mahrez, De Bruyne’s biggest threat comes in the form of being able to pop up anywhere in the opposing half of the pitch to create a scoring chance for others or fashion one for himself.
Per Ladbrokes, City are overwhelming favourites to become the first team to repeat as champions since Manchester United won the last of its three straight titles in 2009. The Citizens are 8/11 odds to win it all again, and there are ridiculous odds for top-four (1/20) and top-six finishes (1/500).
It is a little closer to even money Guardiola’s team will be atop the table on Christmas Day at 10/11, and for top-two finishes, City have 3/1 odds to finish 1-2 ahead of Liverpool and 9/2 with United.
Aguero is listed fifth in odds to win the Premier League’s Golden Boot at 8/1, with Jesus sixth at 14/1. Sane and Sterling are further long shots at 33/1. Player of the Year odds is where it gets interesting as De Bruyne is a slight favorite at 8/1, Sane fifth at 14/1 and David Silva seventh (16/1).
FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES
Aug. 12 — Arsenal (6th) A
Aug. 19 — Huddersfield Town (16th) H
Aug. 25 — Wolverhampton (N/A) A
Sept. 1 — Newcastle United (10th) H
April 20 — Tottenham Hotspur (3rd) H
April 27 — Burnley (7th) A
May 4 — Leicester City (10th) H
May 12 — Brighton and Hove Albion (15th) A
For a team that won the Premier League by 19 points, reached 100, set all sorts of single-season records (it’s easier to just link to the Wiki page rather than add 200 superfluous words and numbers) and also registered a double by also winning the Carabao Cup, there is still unfinished business for Guardiola and Manchester City.
Some of that was self-inflicted by the Spaniard, whose decision to start Gundogan in the first leg of City’s Champions League quarterfinal at Liverpool ran counter to everything he had been building on the blue side of Manchester to that very point, and he paid for it.
Guardiola will not be prone to overthinking this time around, but it will also not be as easy to repeat as champions either. There is always a bizarre variable that comes off a World Cup summer, and while City have more than enough depth to rotate players to address any matchup issue Guardiola may perceive, there will be a creeping unknown of sorts until they actually play the matches and get through them.
Additionally, the primary foil in the Premier League is no longer City’s hated rivals across town, but is indeed, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool. Manchester City had five meaningful losses all of last season — the Champions League ones to Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Basel had nothing at stake — and three of them came to Liverpool.
Further, the one victory over the Reds can be talked away as a match turned on its head when Mane got his red card and a 1-0 game turned into a 5-0 laugher. Liverpool has spent… and spent… and spent to get its team up to a point where it can at least attempt to stand with Manchester City, and it will be upon the reigning champion to knock the Reds down once more.
The success of teams hitting on the counter at the World Cup will probably result in a renewed effort to do so among clubs who play Manchester City. It is nothing new for the Citizens to face, but it will be something to watch. Guardiola loves a game of cat-and-mouse like few other managers, and with his legacy on the line as he enters his third season at the Etihad, expect a cagey and focused Spaniard on the sideline as he hunts glory and beyond.
PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS
July 18 — Fulham July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace August 6 — Manchester City