Whenever I’m struggling with something and I tell my father about it, he has the same advice every time. “Life is a counterweight,” he says. “You keep adding the weight by doing your hard work and soon the scales are bound to tip in your favour.” Manchester City’s first season under Pep Guardiola has been an exercise in putting the hard work towards the right areas and waiting for the scales to tip back the other way.
In the end, the Blues were weighed down by their aging squad and poor recruitment in the years before the new manager’s arrival. The team also had to adapt to the Catalan’s style of football, breaking down stubborn defences while being wary on the counter attack. It’s only something that they have learned in the end-of-season run-in.
What can be said for sure that this season was a period of transition for the club. For all the failings, credit must be given to the team for finishing in third position, despite going for the most dramatic change in style and personnel in the Premier League’s top six.
Guardiola has developed a possession-based style of play and this shows in the stats. City have the highest average possession in the league at 59% and also have the highest passing accuracy at 86%. They completed 1000 more passes in the season at 18,906 than Liverpool who were closest to them in this category. They are third in terms of key passes per game behind Spurs and Liverpool at 11. They are third in terms of key passes per game behind Spurs and Liverpool at 11.32 key passes per game.
What is frustrating, though, is that the club has been preparing for the arrival of Guardiola since the arrivals of Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, but still so few players in the squad he inherited were suited to his style of play. There were eight additions last summer, of which two were loaned out to top European clubs, one arrived in the winter and two others were injured.
John Stones hit the ground running and instantly looked at home in the center of defence as the team went on to win their first 10 matches in all competitions. However, when opponents started taking the game to City, trying to hinder their strategy of playing out from the back, mistakes began to creep into his game.
He was dropped for some games and taken out of the limelight. He fought back after the 4-0 defeat at Everton and was excellent from there on in, though injury saw him out of the team towards the end of the campaign. He particularly impressed in games with Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea in the league, even though City won none.
He showed his attitude and character, shaking off criticism and even trying to get people around him to play. He is the future and everything that he has learned this season will help him going forward to become a success story.
@nikefootball And we can confirm John Stones will be wearing the number 5️⃣ shirt in our new kit next season! #mcfc
It’s unlikely, though, that the same will be said about Claudio Bravo. He was shaky from the off, giving Manchester United a chance in the 2-1 victory at Old Trafford. City had completely dominated until his gaffe gifted Zlatan Ibrahimovic a goal, which could have put the Blues under intense pressure towards the end of the game.
Willy Caballero has been much more reliable and an able distributor of the ball, something that he had improved over the course of the campaign. Bravo could be kept as second choice, but a new goalkeeper in the summer is a must.
Nolito was considered a bargain after contributing important goals and assists in the autumn, but he later tailed off. He looks likely to leave as his lack of pace and physicality doesn’t seem to fit in with the excellent attack that City can have with Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane and Sergio Aguero.
Ilkay Gundogan took time to make his first appearance, but he is capable of making the midfield of this team tick, along with David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne. It was a surprise to see him playing as far forward as he did, though a midfield of these three could supply the forward players with enough ammunition to break down any defence in the seasons to come.
The full-backs haven’t lived up to what would have been expected of them. With Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta both struggling, Bacary Sagna injured and Aleksandar Kolarov moved into centre-back, it’s really highlighted a weakness on the flanks. Fernandinho and Jesus Navas have both been used as make-shift options as a result.
Few can deny that Zabaleta’s send off, following the 3-1 victory over West Brom, wasn’t merited – but equally, it’s clear that his time has come and he was no longer a viable option for the club in the seasons to come.
City’s forward line is phenomenal though, only lacking in a little depth that could be helped by the returning Patrick Roberts. Jesus and Sane have been incredible since January and are surely future superstars. Their pace and direct attacking has caused no end of problems for Guardiola’s opponents, especially when Sterling and Aguero have been on song with them.
That brings us to Aguero. When Guardiola arrived and said that he wanted Aguero to be even better than the clinical striker the fans know and love, it was tough to think that he was being entirely honest. It sounded like press-speak – something to encourage and tease some good form out of the striker, rather than a more truthful statement of wanting to adapt the striker’s game.
He had a tough season at times but still managed to make it his most prolific for the club. He responded well to being dropped too, coming back and scoring at the rate of roughly a goal a game till the end of the season.
His link up play with Jesus in the final two games of the season dismissed a lot of talk that the pair can’t play together as City scored eight times, with the duo netting half of them and picking up a couple of assists each. Guardiola rather tetchily confirmed that he will be staying, which will be a source of relief for supporters.
The biggest positive from this season has been the emergence of a clear style of play, a style that is aesthetically pleasing and would be tough to beat when the players get it right. While they were bossed around the pitch by teams like Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur last season, the level of performances has increased. The team has game plan and this is something that is drilled into them week in week out. The attack has flourished this season due to the same and with the appropriate players, the defence will improve too.
The mentality of City has been a problem this season, especially when they have the game taken to them and are up against tough opposition. Moments of dropping concentration and individual mistakes have caused a lot of dropped points and the players need steel to back up their style.
What to expect
Going forward, the trimming of the squad will happen when most of the older players that are out of contract depart and the first teamers who were hastily loaned out last season are sold. A new goalkeeper, a centre-back, fullbacks, and a holding midfielder are must-buys to bring the team back up to the level it should be at.
A good pre-season, coupled with shrewd moves in the transfer market – both in terms of cutting the deadweights and adding to the quality and quantity of the squad – should make City genuine contenders both domestically and on the European stage come August.
They have genuine stars in their line-up and Guardiola can take them to the next level if they improve their consistency next season.