The belief among football fans, pundits and the team managements is that spending big on quality players “guarantees” success. Year on year, we see footballers being invested on heavily and the expectations of them being sky high. However, for the amounts regularly splashed by the top football clubs, many aren’t and haven’t been as successful as they will have liked and are expected to be.
Manchester City are one of the clubs who have kept investing in experienced players, proven quality and skillful youngsters. The Blues have spent in excess of £400m over the last three seasons (2014/15, 2015/16 and 2016/17) and only have a league cup to show for their financial muscle and willingness to spend. And the Blues still haven’t stopped spending, with £211.8m having already been splashed on six players this summer.
The transfer strategy of City, and probably also of Manchester United (who have spent more than £500m since the 2013/14 season), has been flawed. If you’re spending 100s of millions of Pounds every summer transfer window and probably some more in January, then you most definitely aren’t satisfied with the squad which you assembled in the first place. Pep Guardiola and the City board have had to splurge £200m+ on players in the 2017 summer window… to replace the four departed full-backs, while a goalkeeper has also been brought in for Willy Caballero.
But you know what, spending big money on transfers counts for very little. And if Manchester City and their celebrated manager go on to be successful in the upcoming season, their success will not be a direct result of their spending.
Instead, the five keys to a successful 2017/18 season are as follows:
- Keep the key players fit
- Be consistent with team selections
- Don’t drop points from winning positions
- Don’t let slumps in form drag on
- Keep the intensity levels up
Player fitness the biggest key
In Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero, in particular, Manchester City have two really vital players who have not managed to stay fit for a full season, or even for a majority of the ten months, in recent times. While Aguero wasn’t stricken with injuries last season, he missed as many as six league fixtures due to suspensions alone. The backline with Kompany fares a lot better than without the Belgian.
Post the 14/15 season, the gulf in class between the first-choice and the second-string, fringe players in the City squad has been very evident. So, needless to say, when key personnel as Kompany and Aguero haven’t played for one or the other reason, City haven’t been even half the force they usually are with these two, and the likes of David Silva, as part of the side.
You look at the teams who have won major titles in recent seasons—the likes of Real Madrid, who have won back-to-back Champions League titles, Chelsea, who have been English champions twice in the last three seasons, and Leicester City, who shook the world by winning the 2015/16 Premier League title—and what’s striking is that their key players (Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, John Terry, Eden Hazard, Luka Modric, N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, and Cesar Azpilicueta, among others) played more than 90 per cent of the season’s fixtures.
This has been a marquee feature of their title-winning campaigns. And if Manchester City are to fulfill their title-winning ambitions this upcoming season, then a majority of their squad has to stay fit for much if not the entire campaign.
Don’t unnecessarily tinker with the line-up
Manuel Pellegrini and Pep Guardiola have probably misunderstood “squad rotation”. Yes, you have to take into account player burnout and probably balancing game time for each player as well, during a long ten-month season. But regardless, you cannot tinker so much with your starting line-up, making two or three changes from one match to the next, that you break the rhythm of your players and the team, most importantly.
Fact: As early as until the first week of December 2016, after 14 league fixtures into the last season, Guardiola had made 46 changes to City’s starting XI.
Yes, he had to name replacements for the oft-suspended Aguero and Fernandinho, the ostracised Yaya Toure, the injured Ilkay Gundogan, and the perennially injured Kompany. What can also be said is that the Catalan manager inherited a Pellegrini squad which didn’t quite have the type of players required to make his system and footballing ideas work.
But what was and is going to be the key is the manager’s ability to strike the right balance between sticking and twisting. We keep reiterating that City have to manage the four competitions and the consequent need to have a big squad. But most times, the manager can feel burdened by having too many options and being unable to keep all the players satisfied.
For example, Guardiola has the challenge of accommodating Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane, and Raheem Sterling in his starting XI. Because presuming the former Barcelona manager employs the tried and tested 4-3-3 formation, he can only field three of the four players mentioned.
Manchester City’s midfield is also replete with quality players and again, like in the forward areas, Guardiola will not be able to use more than three or four players from the options available to him: Fernandinho, Gundogan, David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, and Yaya Toure.
Will he keep chopping and changing? He ideally shouldn’t!
Drive home the advantage
If you are ahead by 2-0 against a side like Tottenham Hotspur, at home too, you simply cannot afford to drop any points. But Manchester City kept dropping points from winning positions in the Premier League throughout the last season.
Guardiola’s side dropped as many as 9 points from winning positions and for a team with championship ambitions, you cannot relinquish advantage as often as City did last season. Manchester City recovered 10 points from losing positions too, but the points lost from winning positions, particularly at home to Chelsea, Spurs and Middlesbrough, cost them dear.
One of the reasons for this problem was City’s lack of ruthlessness in the final third and failure to tuck away the chances that were being created with great regularity.
Over to Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus.
Recover quickly from defeats and setbacks
Manchester City have, in recent seasons, let slumps in form drag on for two or three successive fixtures and as a result, tended to easily fall behind in the title race.
Take Chelsea for example last season: Antonio Conte’s men went on a 13-match winning run between October 1 and December 31. The West Londoners were able to put daylight between themselves and Man City, and a considerable gap between themselves and Liverpool, who were the closest to them on the table during this irrepressible run. After 19 matchweeks, the points gap between the eventual champions and favourites Manchester City was 10, and the same between Chelsea and Liverpool was a substantial 6.
While Chelsea won weekend after weekend and kept racking up the points, City struggled to be consistent and finish matches that they were winning, with three points. After winning their first six league fixtures and making a head start to their 2016/17 campaign, Guardiola’s side managed to win only six of their next thirteen league fixtures, dropping 18 points in the process.
This denied them from mounting a title challenge and the season fizzled away too.
Keep the intensity levels high
With or without their key players, Manchester City have, over the last two seasons, raced out of the blocks quickly by winning their first half-a-dozen fixtures. Contrary to popular belief and expectations, the Blues have tended to be razor sharp in almost every department at the start of the season.
Though a no-brainer, you cannot win league titles by being good in patches.
The form slump has tended to begin for the Blues when the Champions League and the League Cup kick in in September and they have to play twice or thrice every week. Because you have to play two or three fixtures every week, not to forget the travelling involved as well for the Champions League clubs, the managers feel coerced to make personnel changes. Thereby, as aforementioned, they break the wonderful rhythm their side were in.
Intensity is key to not suffering massive drops in form. And if you’re a club like Manchester City, keeping the intensity levels up can be tough. Consistent drops in intensity levels within and between matches are not uncommon either with the Blues.
Because you are faced with playing Barcelona or Bayern Munich during the week, the focus, even though the managers completely deny it, is very much on such big-ticket fixtures. The team selection for the fixtures preceding the midweek Champions League matches is different and as a player, you do not want to miss playing at the Camp Nou, the Allianz Arena or Santiago Bernabeu, or against any of the big three at the Etihad Stadium.
A mindset change as this happens subconsciously and your intensity level drops.
If and only if Manchester City overcome the five challenges aforementioned, they will be in a position to lift silverware at the end of the 2017/18 season. Signing Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy by paying huge transfer fees, even though they will be indispensable players along with Ederson, Danilo and Bernardo Silva, will count for nothing if you cannot rise up to the inherent challenges you will be faced with during a long ten-month season.
Good luck, Guardiola and Manchester City.