So what now for Manchester City? After a season of intense scrutiny, sometimes unbearable pressure (for the players and manager at least), with the weight of expectancy at times threatening to bury the team, will they now push on and hit new heights, having met the targets set out for them? Well only time will tell of course, but the pressure may have abated slightly, having captured the first trophy in a generation, but not by much.
The sign of things to come?
Needless to say, pre-season form gives few clues about the season ahead. If it did, Liverpool can expect a relegation battle. It’s even harder to gauge when the team is going through its yearly transformation, as players come and go, and the tradition of premiership teams to haul themselves around the world nowadays means the games become little more than PR campaigns. Nevertheless, the form over pre-season was mixed – the American tour nabbed a meaningless trophy, a couple of wins followed by a victory on penalties against LA Galaxy in a dour game enlivened by Mario Balotelli’s pivot and back heel when through on goal. Then followed a mini-tournament in Ireland, the Dublin Super Cup, and after the reserves had triumphed on Saturday, on Sunday a stronger team was extremely impressive in dismantling an unfit Inter 3-0. And finally, there was of course the Community Shield against Manchester United.
The game was considered to be a pre-season friendly last week, albeit a competitive one, and a final work out for the players. In the aftermath of City’s defeat, it has now been re-assigned as a marker for Manchester United, a kick in the face for United’s noisy neighbours, and according to a journalist, the proof we all needed that United are the team to beat, and it is their title to lose (they are defending champions, this should be obvious anyway).
A fairly young squad will enter the season a year older and more experienced, strengthened with three signings in defence, and possibly Samir Nasri (or Wesley Sneijder, though that looks unlikely) and perhaps a wide-man (Fiorentina’s Alessio Cerci?) in midfield, with even possibly another defender on the way too. There were no gaping deficiencies in the squad last season – but there are obviously improvements that can be made, and Mancini’s priority will be for greater squad depth, as the team seemed to hick a proverbial brick wall or two in late winter.
The defence, which was the joint meanest in the Premier League last season has lost the underwhelming Jerome Boateng, and gained the 26 year-old French left-back Gael Clichy from Arsenal, and the 20 year-old Montenegro defender Stefan Savic, whilst 6 foot 8 inches goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon, signed from Romanian club FC Poli Timisoara, has come in as back-up to Joe Hart, replacing the departed Shay Given.
The midfield has remained unchanged, but an odd arrival or two is imminent. No big names have departed but the future of Shaun Wright Phillips is up in the air, with a number of other premiership clubs keeping a close eye on the situation. His ill-advised twitter comments this week suggest that he wants to stay, but that any departure will be manager-led. An impressive pre-season has helped his cause, when two months ago his future at City looked non-existent. However, he will still probably leave; the latest club to be linked to him being Stoke City. The perma-crocked Michael Johnson has gone to Leicester City on loan, and Patrick Vieira has retired. As mentioned previously, it is expected that Samir Nasri can be added to the midfield roster, plus one more wide player.
It is upfront where the doubts persist. The signing of Sergio “Kun” Aguero is as exciting a signing as City could have made, realistically. For a fee believed to be £38m, Aguero joined on a 5 year deal, taking the number 16 shirt. Comparisons with Tevez will be inevitable, but whilst he may not have the amazing work rate of his compatriot, he is widely regarded by those in the know to be the better all-round player. Inevitably though, he will need time to settle, and the emphasis is on Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli to fulfil their potential in the meantime. The circus that surrounds Balotelli is threatening to derail what he can do on a pitch, and he showed in the two FA Cup Wembley visits last season that he can do a lot.
And then there is Carlos Tevez. Back in training, in the rain, it is impossible to predict what his future holds. He wants to leave, City will let him leave, for the right price, which few can afford. There is talk of swap deals, with Wesley Sneijder or Samuel Eto’o, but most of the rumours seem to have been fabricated. Either way, it is probably better for all parties that he now does leave. If he stays, he will probably give his all on the pitch, and City’s frontline options will be frightening. For half a season City may be spoiled up front, despite all the problems they appear to have – half a season as a January deal with Corinthians cannot be ruled out. If he does leave this summer, it will probably be to Inter Milan.
Two other strikers have finally left. Firstly Jo (undisclosed fee) has returned to Brazil, at which point every City fan simultaneously gave a sigh of relief. Felipe Caicedo (Levante, £880,000) ended another less than successful chapter in Manchester City’s transfer history, made even more demoralising by Levante soon selling him on for a huge profit.
For three other attacking players, a state of limbo exists for now. Craig Bellamy is unwilling to drop wages to move elsewhere, which pretty much blocks a move anywhere. He probably wants a return to Cardiff, but they cannot remotely afford his wages, so he faces the prospect of a year of total inactivity. City and the player want a deal to be sorted with someone, so one can expect something to happen late in the transfer window (with City paying some of his wages).
And then there is Emmanuel Adebayor – another player who wants to leave, and who City want to get rid of. But, his massive wages are again serving as a hindrance for any deal. The player seems very keen to move permanently to Real Madrid, with whom he spent the second half of last season on loan. They don’t seem too keen though, or didn’t at first, with the option period to sign him expiring with no activity, but the rumours of a possible move persist, the latest rumour involving a swap deal plus cash with Gago.
As for Roque Santa Cruz, an exit should happen at some point. Another expensive mistake on huge wages- perhaps the best that can be hoped for next season is a loan deal elsewhere in the Premiership, with City once more paying some of his wages.
Other players who have left include: Shaleum Logan (Brentford, free), Javan Vidal (released), Abdisalam Ibrahim (NEC Nijmegen, loan), Ben Mee (Burnley, loan) and Ryan McGivern (Crystal Palace, loan).
City’s early season fixture list is a mixed bunch – not easy, but not the hardest either. Swansea at home, Bolton and Spurs away, Wigan at home, Fulham away, then their bogey team Everton at home. They have Chelsea and Arsenal in successive games in December, but their run-in is fairly routine – with one exception, namely Manchester United as their penultimate home game. City will be away from home in every league fixture after a Champions League game. There is much debate over how relevant it is to have to travel after a European game, but it has affected some teams’ results in the past. On the flip side, they are at home before every European game, so this might help their chances of Champions League progress. Only time will tell. Otherwise, the difficult/easiest games are spread out over the season, and no particular month stands out more than others.
It is hard to analyse last season’s home and away form for the top teams, as it was a strange season in many respects. City’s home form was fairly good, but with the odd disappointment – such as home draws against Birmingham and Blackburn, and the inevitable defeat to Everton, plus a 3-0 reverse with 10 men to Arsenal. If they want to challenge for titles, there is little room for failure at home – City will be looking to turn the Etihad Stadium into a fortress from now on.
Away from home, the stats would suggest they struggled after Christmas on the road, but then most of their most difficult away games came during this period – Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Everton for example. Again they will be looking for at least a marginal improvement in the future.
However, they did impress in the run-in, a rarity over recent years. The defeat away to Everton apart (which they mostly dominated anyway), they surged over the finishing line to take third place when it had looked a possibility (though unlikely) in late March that they could miss out on a European place altogether, becoming the form team over the final eight games. Under great pressure they delivered, and picked up a trophy, and this bodes well for future seasons.
For all of Alex Ferguson’s snide barbs about noisy neighbours, it is clear now that Manchester City have arrived, with expectations to match. It is hard to gauge how they will compete, as this is all new territory – whilst finishing level on points with Chelsea last season, few seriously ever thought that they could be title contenders, just yet. Now that perception may change. Whilst the team has no experience of fighting for the major honours, plenty in the squad do. They should have the mentality to compete, but you can’t buy experience in this particular league – United will remain the favourites to regain their title, and understandably so. For City, the aim is to compete for that title, and compete for the other honours available – there is no knowing where it will end, but it should be an exciting and interesting season ahead, and with a world-class spine of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Nigel De Jong, David Silva and Sergio Aguero in place, the future is bright.
Follow Howard on Twitter @howiehok34