The 2014-15 Barclays Premier League season ended back in May, but in truth, it feels like the gap between the end of last and beginning of the 2015-16 season hasn’t been too long. Manchester City failed to defend their league title for the second time in a row last season, losing to an irrepressible Chelsea side that ran to the finish line unchallenged by the then defending champions. However, if you go by history, which simply cannot be overlooked in any sport, the Etihad outfit has proved that it has the stuff to come back strongly in the very next season and reclaim the crown; it has happened once before, and the jury is still out on City doing it for the second time in succession, with Jose Mourinho’s side least expected to fall away like David Moyes’ Manchester United did during the 2013-14 campaign.
The question, as we embark on a brand new season that has all the makings of being a highly competitive one, is can a reinvigorated City side quell the uncertainty of last season and mount a title challenge this coming term, with Chelsea, Arsenal and United as the other contenders?
The Big Picture
The spine of the current City squad has won two Premier League titles in the last four years and, with the addition of a few talented youngsters, should believe that playing to potential will make them strong favorites to win it once again. Some may argue that previous seasons’ results do not matter a lot when you begin a new season, however, City’s experience of having won the title before – that too very recently – cannot be undermined. Barring the South American contingent of the City squad, every player has had good enough rest following the end of last season and must be hungry to get back on the pitch and resume competitive action.
Manuel Pellegrini has to be the instigator for City this season, and the Chilean, too, must be feeling motivated to win over his naysayers, after signing a 1-year contract extension, which will now keep him at the club at least till 2017, on Friday. After his double winning first season, in which City scored 156 goals across all competitions, Pellegrini maybe was oblivious to the fact that it was going to be difficult for his side to repeat such a monumental feat once again. Therefore, City needed to be defensively a lot more solid last season, but Pellegrini’s penchant for playing an expansive brand of football saw them drop as many as 7 points from winning positions in the league.
City are an entertaining team and they do try to engage their opponents in an open game – like the 1-1 draw at the Etihad, against AS Roma in the group stages of last season’s UEFA Champions League. But, since they like to dominate possession, City will be victims of getting caught on the break every now and then; it happens to every team in the World, and the Sky Blues are no different in this regard. However, learning to keep the ball better will not only help them against counterattacking teams in domestic competitions, but make them more successful in Europe, as well.
Talking of City’s squad dimensions, I think they have a very strong squad with good cover for the first-choice personnel across all areas of the pitch. There has been plenty of talk regarding City’s defensive problems and being hit for 4s, but their defensive vulnerability has been down to the form of their defenders more than anything else: Vincent Kompany had a poor last season while Eliaquim Mangala, after making a £32m switch from FC Porto, took time to settle down before looking better towards the end. Continuing on the topic of Kompany and Mangala, the two of them are dominant centre-halves who like to impose themselves on centre-forwards. But I think they need to take a leaf or two out of Martin Demichelis’ book; the Argentine rarely rushes out of his defensive line, and his tendency to wait it out and not lunge into tackles, has been one of the reasons for improvement in his form since a tough start to life at the Etihad.
City’s engine room and frontline are chock-a-block with class, nous and experience, and I would say that Pellegrini’s side enjoys an edge over their title rivals in those two areas. City and their manager pride themselves in scoring goals – and plenty of them – and looking at their midfield and attack, they are capable of scoring many goals this season, as well. You may well see City lining up in the 4-3-3 system this season, though they have 3 quality strikers – including the World Class Sergio Aguero – at their disposal and therefore, 4-4-2 is not totally out of the question.
The current leading club in Manchester will not only want to recapture the Premier League title, but go as far as possible in the Champions League, as well. Pellegrini has taken them into the knockout rounds of the competition during his two seasons at the club, and they did put up a better show last time around against Barcelona, compared to when the two sides met at the same R-16 stage in the 2013/14 season. The worry for City in their quest to becoming a side capable of winning the Champions League is the inability to score goals against big opposition in the most crucial of games. Whenever they have scored two or more goals, City have beaten Bayern Munich and also went agonizingly close to beating Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in the 2012/13 Champions League. Yes, they haven’t looked defensively secure either during the four seasons in the competition so far, but inability to score goals is what they need to overcome.
The Sky Blues have been reasonably active during the ongoing transfer window, showing definite intent to reinvigorate a squad that lacked energy and incision last season. Three of their four signings are 20 years old or less, and City have a long term vision with them coming to join the setup.
Enes Unal, a prolific goal scorer at various youth levels in Turkey, has been captured on a £2m deal from Bursapor, for whom the 18-year old marksman scored 4 goals in 37 appearances last season. He has been loaned out to Belgian side Genk for the next couple of seasons.
City, following Unal’s signing, landed their first ‘crack’ player of the summer, Raheem Sterling. The 20-year old English international became a rebel at Liverpool and Anfield because of a contract standoff that was a consequence of his own perception of the Merseysiders not possessing the wherewithal to compete for top honors. City, after having their bids of £25m and £40m rejected by the Scousers, tabled a decisive third offer of about £44m that helped them land the pacey, versatile forward.
Following Frank Lampard and James Milner’s departures, there were few doubts that last season’s runners-up either needed to inject players raised and nurtured from their own academy, or go out and buy English players in order to meet the 8 homegrown players’ quota in the Premier League and Champions League squads.
Right after City wrapped up Sterling’s deal; they went ahead and activated the £8m release clause in Fabian Delph’s Aston Villa contract that he had signed this past January. It is a bargain for the Cityzens, who now have another midfielder who can score goals and offer defensive support in front of the backline as well.
Patrick Roberts, the English Messi, has been City’s latest signing so far in this transfer window. The 18-year old has joined from Fulham on a £8m deal.
Talking of outgoings, Dedryck Boyata joined Scottish club Celtic on a 4-year deal in June, after a 9-year stay with City. Scott Sinclair and Matija Nastasic, both of whom joined Aston Villa and Schalke, respectively, on loan deals in January, have signed permanent contracts at the same clubs. John Guidetti, who became a free agent in July, has been signed up by Spanish side Celta Vigo on a 5-year deal, while Milner, a free agent, Jordy Hiwula and Karim Rekik have also left City during this ongoing transfer window, with the latter joining Ligue 1 outfit Marseille on a permanent deal worth around £3.5m.
Stevan Jovetic has joined Inter Milan on an 18-month loan deal, with the Serie A side having the obligation to make it permanent at the end of 18-month period, a transfer that could see City make £14.25m. Also, after much negotiation, City have struck a £14m permanent deal with Roma for Edin Dzeko. The Bosnian has had and passed his medical, and should be unveiled as a Roma player sooner than later.
It has been a pretty good transfer window so far for the Cityzens – both in terms of buying and selling – who will hope the likes of Sterling and Delph can help them regain the title from Chelsea. They are still reported to be in the market for VFL Wolfsburg playmaker Kevin de Bruyne, but there hasn’t been anything tangible on the story so far.
City’s pre-season preparations were all about the young brigade coming through and making their presence felt. More than the results City managed, the standout aspect of City’s pre-season campaign was the maturity and potential shown by the youngsters who were on show throughout the pre-season campaign.
The 2013/14 Capital One Cup winners based themselves in Australia’s Gold Coast for the first phase of the pre-season tour comprising of two friendlies against Adelaide United and Melbourne City, their sister club. They landed in the country on the 10th of July, before the behind-the-doors friendly on 15th of July against Adelaide, who went down 0-2 to the Premier League outfit. Brandon Barker, the 18-year old Manchester lad, and Bruno Zuculini were on target for City, who came up against Melbourne a couple of days later. Melbourne gave City a run for their money, and it was in this game that the defence was exposed, thereafter continuing in the same vein till the final friendly against VFB Stuttgart. However, not to forget Samir Nasri’s composed volley in the latter stages of the game against Melbourne, that saw City win a game they would have surely considered as one of the great workouts during this past pre-season.
City then moved to Melbourne for taking part in the International Champions Cup, a tournament that also featured Roma and Rafael Benitez’ Real Madrid. The game against Rudi Garcia’s side saw Sterling make his City debut, and show glimpses – only glimpses, mind you – of what he will be bringing to his new club. He scored a goal with his very first attempt, as Kelechi Iheanacho, the 18-year old Nigerian, played a wonderful lobbed pass over the Roma backline. Iheanacho, in the second half, scored a goal of his own, showing what a clinical finisher he can be, as he latched onto a loose back pass from Ashley Cole. The game ended in a 2-2 draw after 90 minutes, with Miralem Pjanic scoring a brace and helping his side equalize twice on the night. Joe Hart helped City win the shootout, scoring one of his own and saving a couple, as well.
It was City’s subsequent fixture against Real Madrid that proved to be their first real low-point of the pre-season. The 10-time European champions bulldozed Pellegrini’s side that, as a matter of fact, fielded two young centre-halves in Jason Denayer and Cameron Humphreys, both of whom played the full 90 minutes. Isco had a brilliant game which ended with a scoreline of 4-1, but City never really imposed themselves against a Los Blancos side that featured Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, to name a few. Winning a game of this sort would have been a great endorsement for City, and even though it was only a friendly featuring a young City side, I think it was yet another instance of the Sky Blues not being able to cope with the Giants of the game. Sterling, though, was once again the positive for the Cityzens, exhibiting pace, commitment and trickery to create a handful of chances for his new club.
The Madrid game was the last of City’s tour of Australia, following which they reached Vietnam on the 27th of July, to play against the country’s national side. Unsurprisingly, City were clearly dominant, scoring 8 goals and conceding just 1. The likes of Aleksandar Kolarov, Sterling, David Silva, Marcos Lopes and Jose Pozo got on the scoresheet for their side, though City really could not take much out of this game.
City then returned to Manchester before jetting off to Germany four days later for the one-off friendly against Stuttgart at the Mercedes-Benz Arena on the 1st of August. Pellegrini picked a strong City side that featured Wilfried Bony for the first time in pre-season, but City’s engine room comprised of George Evans, Silva and Nasri and was one of the many reasons for the 2-4 defeat: the defence was all over the place, and City created little until very late on in the game by way of Sterling, who assisted both the goals scored by Iheanacho and Dzeko.
As aforementioned, this pre-season will be remembered for the exploits of City’s youngsters, who proved their mettle and importantly, showed good heads on their slender shoulders when playing against Roma and Madrid. The likes of Manuel Garcia, Barker, Denayer, Iheanacho, Pozo and Humphreys, impressed one and all, and have given Pellegrini options that he can look at if the need arises during the course of the season. As a matter of fact, Denayer, Lopes and Iheanacho have graduated from City’s EDS team to the senior side, something that was notified to us during the season launch party on the 6th of August.
How City’s fixtures shape up over the season?
City have a real tough start to their campaign, which they kickoff against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns on the 10th of August. In the very second game of their Premier League campaign, they face a home clash on the 16th of August against the reigning champions, who haven’t lost to the likes of City, Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool over the last two seasons. With such a massive game falling this early on in the campaign, a win or defeat may not mean a lot for either side, though a win for City will render them with massive confidence and land a psychological blow against by far their biggest barrier for reclaiming the title. They follow Chelsea’s clash with a trip to Goodison Park, where they have struggled to buy enviable results over the years. It is a massive month of August that City have got, and one requiring them to not endure a tenuous start, again, like last term or the title-winning 2013/14 season.
City also play Tottenham Hotspur (on the 26th of September, Gameweek 7) and Manchester United (on the 25th of October, Gameweek 10) – both away from home – in their first 10 league fixtures that certainly could have a massive say on City’s chances of reclaiming the title. The trip to North London and White Hart Lane will be followed by Matchday two action in the Champions League, for which City will learn their group stage opponents on the 27th of August, when the draw is set to take place in Monaco.
Talking of key league fixtures, Liverpool visit the Etihad on the 21st of November (Gameweek 13), a game that will be followed by Matchday five action in the Champions League. City also face an away clash against a rejuvenated Arsenal side on 19th of December (Gameweek 17), at a time when the league table, you think, will begin to take shape.
The second half of City’s league campaign is a bit easy, though there are some key away fixtures – including trips to Anfield and Stamford Bridge – to negotiate. City face Newcastle United and Liverpool in back-to-back away fixtures on the 27th February, 2016 and 1st March, 2016, respectively, when the season will be reaching its business end. Spurs visit the Etihad on the 13th of February, as the first of three crucial home fixtures during the second leg of Premier League: the second Manchester derby falls on the 19th March, 2016 and clash against Arsenal, on 7th May, 2016, is the penultimate game of the 2015/16 league campaign.
Because of City’s involvement in Europe, they will be participating from the 3rd round of Capital One Cup, which will take place during the week commencing 21st of September.
Note: the aforementioned dates and fixtures are subject to change depending on City’s participation in various competitions, including the FA Cup, which will begin in the first week of January 2016.
The defence probably seems to be City’s weak link, but if Kompany can get his game together, he will be able to transform the overall form of his side. City are by far the best attacking outfit in the Premier League – even slightly ahead of Arsenal since they have brought Sterling, and his partnership with Silva and Aguero one of the things to look forward to in the new season – and their supporters have every reason to be excited about what Delph, along with his compatriot will be bringing to the table.
Pellegrini has the massive task of making City a more balanced side that they certainly ought to be, if they want to become competitive in Europe. The 2015/16 season for City should be another exhilarating one for everyone concerned with this rapidly growing football club, and it remains to be seen how City react to the trophy-less 2014/15 season.