As Jack Grealish begins training at the Etihad Campus and Harry Kane continues not training in Florida, it is worth remembering Pep Guardiola left a warning in plain sight that Manchester City would be prime movers and shakers in this year’s transfer market.
Speaking to Rio Ferdinand on BT Sport ahead of May’s Champions League final defeat to Chelsea, Guardiola pondered the ingredients needed for sustained success, having already lifted three of the past four Premier League titles on offer.
“Did you have the same squad when you won your sixth Premier League as you did your first one?” he asked former Manchester United defender Ferdinand.
“You have to shake, you have to move. With the same guys, it is almost impossible. We change. After defeats or a win, we change.”
Such are the talents at Guardiola’s disposal within the City squad, the £100million British record outlay to secure Grealish brought plenty of derision. Kane will cost more and, should any offer pass muster with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy, it will be the same story.
But the City boss knew well of what he spoke and who he was speaking to. In 2002, Ferdinand joined United from Leeds United for a British record £30m. That deal usurped the £28.1m fee Alex Ferguson required to bring in Juan Sebastian Veron from Lazio a year earlier. In 2004, United made Wayne Rooney (£27m) the most expensive teenager in world football.
Even as the great 1998-99 United team went on to win the subsequent two Premier Leagues, Ferguson decided he had to shake. He had to move. Despite the successes of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at the start of this century, this thirst to improve from a position of strength meant United were able to dominate again.
Comparisons to Ferguson will no doubt grate for plenty of the City faithful, but geography and the scale of Guardiola’s achievements to date – eight major honours in the past four seasons – mean they are easy to reach for.
The former Barcelona coach became the first manager to retain the Premier League since the great Scot and, as he looks to repeat that feat, another Fergusonism has been laid at his door.
Last season, some observers contended Guardiola had built his second great City side. Team building and re-building was a perfected art form at United in the 1990s and 2000s and the shorter tenures of the modern era mean today’s elite coaches are rarely called upon to accomplish such a tall task.
Guardiola certainly fitted the contemporary template at Barca and Bayern Munich, working with bristling intensity for four and three seasons respectively before standing down amid a sense that parties on both sides of the player/coach divide were burnt out to some extent.
You only needed to study the City manager on the touchline as a team featuring a crop of youth team players won recent friendlies against Preston North End, Barnsley and Blackpool to see plenty of that intensity remains. But the combination of ideal working conditions under old Barcelona allies Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano along with the lack of either Camp Nou’s tumultuous politics or ex-playing grandees as at Bayern have persuaded the 50-year-old that Manchester is a place to burnish his legacy with longevity.
A contract extension penned in November last year means Guardiola is set to remain City boss until June 2023, by which point he will have completed seven seasons.
Club record goalscorer Sergio Aguero departing at the end of last term means only captain Fernandinho, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling remain from the pre-Guardiola years and the latter two signed a year before his arrival when City’s direction of travel was fairly well signposted.
Grealish’s arrival and the potential capture of Kane for another nine-figure outlay feels like a significant pivot point in a way that 2020-21, with its inverted full-backs, false-nines and off-the-cuff solutions, did not. A new chapter begins with Saturday’s Community Shield encounter against Leicester City at Wembley.
GUARDIOLA’S CITY 2.0
Guardiola’s third Premier League title and fourth consecutive EFL Cup did not tell the story of a new team being methodically put together. From the point City lost 2-0 at Tottenham last November, which left them 11th in the Premier League with 12 points from eight games, it was a tale of shrewd adjustment and pragmatism within the manager’s signature style.
“I said we have to come back to our first principle. We started to rebuild and reconstruct the team,” Guardiola said. “We had success in the past and [we had to] come back on our positional play, move the ball quicker, do more passes, stay more in position, run less with the ball.”
City adapted better than any other Premier League side to the rigours of pandemic football. The effective pressing that is a hallmark of all Guardiola’s sides was in evidence – 377 high turnovers and 80 shots from high turnovers (open play sequences that begin within 40 metres of the opposition goal) were the best numbers in the Premier League.
This was despite City allowing 11.5 passes per defensive action (PPDA), putting them joint-sixth in a category headed up by Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds Untied and their rabid pressing (9.3 PPDA).
The conclusion to be drawn here is that City picked their moments judiciously rather than relentlessly harrying opponents. Even as their press faltered during their meek 2019-20 title defence, their PPDA was 10.1.
In possession they were similarly methodical. City’s direct speed – the metres per second they progressed upfield in open play – was the slowest in the Premier League. Opta’s figure of 1.1 direct speed for the champions in 2020-21 compares to 1.4 when they won the league with 100 points for the first time under Guardiola in 2017-18 and 1.3 when the fought tooth and nail with Liverpool to retain it.
Alongside the key addition of talismanic centre-back Ruben Dias, slowing down in this manner helped City to be more defensively solid, although there was a price paid at the other end of the field.
Their goals (83) and shots on target (216) in the Premier League were lower than every campaign since Guardiola’s initial trophy-less outing in 2016-17. City’s 599 shots overall were the least of his tenure and down form 745 in 2019-20, they registered 68.9 for expected goals (xG) having been between 80 and 94 for the three prior campaigns.
Despite their array of creative midfield talent, City made 1,164 passes into the opposition box, having never clocked below 1,300 in the Guardiola era. In 2018-19, they made 1,522.
This was largely not too much of a problem, of course, but the manner in which City subsided to Chelsea after Kai Havertz scored the only goal in Porto was a concern. Thomas Tuchel’s team saw out a 1-0 win in relative comfort and City’s xG of 0.45 was their second lowest in any match managed by Guardiola.
JACKED UP ATTACK
Those initial title wins for Guardiola in England featured a forward line with the electrifying wing talents of Leroy Sane and Sterling to the fore.
Sane is now at Bayern Munich and, after the mid-season tweaks last term, Sterling struggled and lost his place as a locked-in starter. Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez generally started either side of a false nine as the importance of players being able to provide the “extra pass” became a Guardiola mantra.
Sterling returns reinvigorated by a fabulous Euro 2020 but Grealish is no more of a direct Sane replacement than Ferran Torres was a year ago. The qualities of the England playmaker and those of his international captain Kane suggest Guardiola is keen to keep the control of 2020-21 and bolt on increased attacking efficiency.
Despite missing 12 matches through injury, Grealish supplied 10 Premier League assists last season. De Bruyne (12) and Kane (14) were two of the three players above him, with the Spurs striker topping the league charts in terms of goals and assists.
Grealish edged De Bruyne by 81-80 in terms of chances created, while his advantage was 70-58 when it came to chances created from open play. City’s record signing also edged De Bruyne in terms of expected assists (xA) with 6.52 against 6.21, indicating the high quality of chances his passes created.
Since the departures of David Silva and Sane, the creative burden has arguably rested too heavily upon De Bruyne. Joan Cancelo (45) and Mahrez (44) were the next best in the City squad for chances created, while the Belgian maestro created 19 of what Opta class as ‘big chances’. That put him second only to Bruno Fernandes (20) in the division but none of his team-mates hit double figures. Grealish created 14 such opportunities.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
“I think everyone knows how much I admire Kevin and it’s going to be a dream come true to play alongside him,” Grealish said in his interview with City’s in-house media channel on Thursday.
Without Silva and Sane’s axis down the left channel, De Bruyne’s role at City changed last season, with Guardiola granting him a broader midfield brief, as well as rotating the 30-year-old and Bernardo Silva as his two main false-nine options.
As a result, his touches on the right-hand side of the opposition half – in the spaces he roves to deliver those “score me!” crosses – were down by an average of 7.2 per 90 minutes when compared to 2019-20, when De Bruyne supplied a record-equalling 20 Premier League assists.
He made more touches in central areas and averaged 4.6 more per 90 on the left hand side, where Grealish likes to operate.
A report by The Athletic stated Guardiola intends to use Grealish as an option in the left-sided number eight position within his 4-3-3, one often occupied by Ilkay Gundogan as the Germany international enjoyed the most prolific goalscoring season of his career.
Grealish would provide a different threat, not least with his exceptional dribbling ability. His 60 carries ending with a shot at goal last season were the best in the division, one ahead of Kane. Of those, 37 were created chances for team-mates and the extent to which the 25-year-old occupies defenders should free up De Bruyne to thrive where he can deliver those balls that strikers love – not to say his delivery from the left is especially shabby.
“When I watch De Bruyne play he’s a special, special player and some of the balls I see him put in for City are just a striker’s dream if I’m honest,” Kane told Gary Neville’s Overlap podcast in May, demonstrating his aptitude for subtlety is not on a par with his goal poaching.
“He’s an outstanding player with the ball, off the ball, pressing, but his delivery is as good as I’ve ever seen to be honest.”
Should Kane follow Grealish in realising his De Bruyne dream, Guardiola will field a team retaining the control that squeezed the competition last season and bolstered by a goal threat at least equal to his initial City configuration.
If he can knit it all together, and history suggests a very decent record in that regard, it represents a chilling prospect for the rest of the elite in England and Europe.