2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Manchester City (August 6)

(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)

2017/18 REVIEW

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

Manchester City Lineup.png

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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

OUTLOOK

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.

Dearly.

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.

PREDICTED FINISH

1st place

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

2018-19 EPL Team-by-Team Previews: Leicester City (July 29)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 12th of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on August 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page)

LEICESTER CITY FOXES

Manager: Claude Puel (Hire Date: Oct. 25, 2017)
Tenure Length: 14th/20 in Premier League and 49th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 12-11-15, 47 points, 9th in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 56
2017-18 Goal Difference: minus-4
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League: 5 (includes 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 2014
Last Relegation: 
2008 (Championship to League One)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Quarterfinal loss on penalties (Manchester City)
2017-18 FA Cup: Quarterfinal loss after extra time (Chelsea)

2017/18 REVIEW

It was a rough start for Leicester City, which had a brutal gauntlet to open the season with losses to Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool among its first seven matches. But it was the draw at struggling West Bromwich Albion that proved a bridge too far for ownership as Craig Shakespeare was sacked in mid-October.

Claude Puel, who was jettisoned after one season at Southampton despite an eighth-place finish in 2016-17, stepped into the vacant coaching spot. The Foxes responded with five wins and points in seven of its next eight matches, with the lone blemish a 2-0 loss to Manchester City.

Leicester City struggled in December, with the low point a tough exit on penalties to City in the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup, but the turn of the calendar year saw a positive bounce with seven points in league play and FA Cup victories over Fleetwood Town and Peterborough United. The Foxes hit their high-water mark of seventh place on Jan. 24 after beating Watford 2-0 on goals by Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.

But a five-match winless spell in league play followed, with draws in three consecutive home matches, and the Foxes’ FA Cup run ended with a loss after extra time to Chelsea in the quarters. Despite taking just four points in the final seven matches (1-1-5), Leicester City was able to stay above the struggling bottom half of the table the entire time.

The Foxes sealed their top-half status with a 3-1 win over Arsenal in their penultimate match, then concluded the season with a wild 5-4 loss at Tottenham Hotspur in which they squandered a 3-1 lead and nearly stole a point before being done in by Harry Kane in the final quarter-hour.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Leicester City Lineup

 

One thing which stands out for Leicester City is the flexibility Puel has with wide backs Ben Chillwell and new acquisition Ricardo Pereira. While the Foxes have played with four in the back in the preseason, it seems possible Leicester City could hybrid into a 3-5-2 set-up.

Kasper Schmeichel is the unquestioned No. 1 after backstopping Denmark to the round of 16 at the World Cup, and Harry Maguire is coming off a standout performance for England in Russia that has skyrocketed his value to over £65 million as the Foxes are fighting off potential suitors, most notably opening-match opponent Manchester United.

Evans adds another capable veteran to the back line, while Fuchs would flank Maguire on the right behind Pereira, another player who saw his stock rise in Russia while playing for Portugal. On the left in front of Evans is Ben Chillwell, who has shown plenty of promise at the club while progressing through England’s youth program.

The midfield is where it gets messy or interesting depending on how you view your glass. Wilfred Ndidi remains as the defensive midfield stopper, and Puel could pair him with Vicente Iborra or Adrien Silva, whose adventurous transfer saga delayed his Midlands debut until January.

Nampalys Mendy provides depth at both positions, but who will fill the large playmaking boots of Mahrez is a question that has no set answer and plenty of possible ones.

Marc Albrighton could get first crack at the most forward role, though it is also possible Silva could feature there. Newcomer James Maddison has the potential to carve out some playing time, and Daniel Amartey could prove an interesting flex option if Puel wants to try something that would resemble a 3-4-2-1 set-up with Jamie Vardy as a sole striker.

Vardy will again lead the line, but there is competition for the underneath role among Kelechi Iheanacho and his Nigerian compatriot Ahmed Musa. The tireless Shinji Okazaki again serves a useful third striker role off the bench, and there are reports Islam Slimani will be off-loaded, perhaps to Fenerbahce, before the start of the season.

While Puel claimed he had a lineup in mind for the opener versus Manchester United after a preseason loss to Udinese, he does not lack for options or potential combinations throughout his starting XI.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

Leicester City made a raft of signings over the summer, but the move everyone will rightfully focus on is the departure of Mahrez to Manchester City for £60 million. That ended a protracted saga which should have ended in the January window and lasted almost two entire seasons after the Foxes won the Premier League title in 2016.

His absence creates a huge playmaking void that no one signing can replace. The hope is Madisson can eventually be that player after coming over from Norwich City on a £22 million move, but the 21-year-old England youth product may be a season away from taking on the role full-time and should fare well as an understudy to Albrighton.

After losing backup keeper Ben Hamer, Leicester City signed Danny Wood after he became surplus to goods at Liverpool following its record signing of Alisson. The Foxes shored up their central defence with the signing of Evans after his relegation clause was activated at West Brom, and the move to a three-man backline was put into high gear with the £24 million acquisition of Pereira, the Portugal international who spent last season at Porto after two seasons on loan at Nice, including the 2015-16 season under Puel.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Jamie Vardy (F)

The cult hero of the Midlands and the poster boy for hard work to climb the rungs of the football ladder, Vardy continued to bang those who “chat shit” after ringing up 20 goals in league play for the second time in three seasons, giving him 57 in 108 matches over that span and 63 in 128 overall.

He will obviously miss Mahrez’s creativity as the two operated on a wavelength few could match in Europe, let alone just the Premier League, but Vardy’s work rate has never failed him in his climb to the top, and that will still be the case after helping England reach the World Cup semifinals this summer. He may take a small step back in terms of the final number of goals, but undervalue him at your own risk.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Oddsmakers are fairly confident Leicester City will not be part of the relegation scrap, offering 14/1 odds on the Foxes being dropped, pegging them as the best team outside the top seven. They have the third-shortest odds to finish in the top 10 at 4/6 and are even money to place 11th or worse.

Leicester City is getting 7/1 odds for a top-six finish, again the favorite outside the standard seven, while a top-four finish is 33/1, behind promoted Wolverhampton outside the top seven.

Vardy is 13th to take home the Premier League’s Golden Boot with 33/1 odds, level with Manchester City’s Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling.

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 10 — Manchester United (2nd) A
Aug. 18 — Wolverhampton (N/A) H
Aug. 25 — Southampton (17th) A
Sept. 1 — Liverpool (4th) H
—————
April 20 — West Ham United (13th) A
April 27 — Arsenal (6th) H
May 4 — Manchester City (1st) A
May 12 — Chelsea (5th) H

OUTLOOK

On one hand, it feels like Puel being in charge in the Midlands is a return to Leicester City’s counterattacking roots Cluadio Ranieri developed in its fairy-tale run to the 2016 title, but on the other hand, two seasons removed from all the dirty work N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater performed that campaign shows just how much further Ndidi and Iborra have to develop to bring the Foxes to an elite level.

That task is made all the more difficult without Mahrez, and Leicester City’s attack is more of a jigsaw puzzle in the middle Puel must figure out with the border already solved in Vardy.

The Foxes should be fairly strong in the spine this season after the superb summers of both Schmeichel and Maguire; the key for Puel will be to make sure Chillwell and Pereira remember their defensive responsibilities out wide in support and being disciplined in the timing of their upfield thrusts.

While the start of their schedule is challenging, playing top teams who are loaded with World Cup regulars working their way back into shape could prove to be beneficial for Leicester City. But the Foxes’ run-in is diabolical, even before factoring in pundits pegging West Ham to punch above its weight compared to last season.

This season will be a work in progress for Leicester City, which can ill-afford a coaching merry-go-round for the third straight season. The sooner the Foxes find a consistent replacement for Mahrez’s playmaking duties in the midfield, the better, but look for this team to be a defence-first outfit in the early going before getting into gear offensively.

PREDICTED FINISH

13th place

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                          Auugst 6 — Manchester City