Premier League 2015-16 preview No 6: Manchester City

Manchester City. (AFP)

Manchester City. (AFP)

Predicted position: 4th

Last season’s position: 2nd

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 11-4

Manchester City are among the big spenders of European football, they have just been released from restrictions on incoming transfers based on Financial Fair Play rules and there is still a month of the transfer window to go. So maybe there is still some Kevin de Bruyne-shaped business to be conducted before the squad for the 2015-16 season is complete.

And maybe there is not. City with Manuel Pellegrini in charge have traditionally done their trading early and decisively, eschewing the uncertainty of last-day drama.

Unlike Manchester United, who have bought themselves a whole new midfield this summer and are still bemoaning the lack of genuine creativity, City are fairly happy with what is already at the club.
They were champions two seasons ago and runners-up last time out. They may need a few tweaks to remain competitive but they are not in the market for an overhaul, especially with a manager widely believed to be in his last season at the Etihad.

There, perhaps, is the explanation for the apparent stasis. If there is to be a new manager coming along in a year’s time, leaving aside the question of whether his name is Pep and he is currently in charge of Bayern Munich, it would not make sense to let the outgoing manager spend too much money on changing the side in ways that his successor may not approve of.

Yes, City have just raised the transfer record for an English player to £49-million for Raheem Sterling but that could be viewed as a declaration of intent for the future. Sterling is 20 years of age and could easily be a prize asset for the next decade or more. Pellegrini is saying warm, complimentary things about him now, as well he might, though it is on the whole unlikely that the manager went to his superiors and said there is a lad at Liverpool we ought to buy at any price.

City have people in place to do that sort of business without being asked, to identify the most promising talent at the optimum age, so that potential managers of the future, including Mr G of Bavaria, can look over the squad and see the club is in a position to compete.

It is a bit like United buying Wayne Rooney in 2004. Everyone could see he was the brightest English attacking player around, most likely a fixture in the England team for a decade or more to come, so hang the expense and buy him to ensure he gives his best years to your cause and no one else’s.

That is the theory, anyway. Of more immediate concern to City fans is whether Sterling alone can make a significant difference to the club’s chances of finishing ahead of Chelsea. The only other signings City have made to date are two more English players, neither of whom is expected to make an immediate impact. Patrick Roberts, a slight but highly promising teenage acquisition from Fulham, is one for the long term. Fabian Delph, formerly of Leeds and Aston Villa, has been given assurances he will feature in midfield, despite the fairly hefty claims of Yaya Touré, Fernandinho and the rest, although he is injured.

Of those three signings only Sterling will arouse genuine early-season excitement. He has done well against City in the past – weakening Liverpool was a not insignificant part of the attraction of the deal – and he appears to be just the sort of lively, irrepressible forward who can correct the tendency in Pellegrini’s players last season to stroke the ball around elegantly without summoning the urgency or penetration to hurt opponents.

Yet, and this is quite a big yet, a lack of incision up front was not City’s only shortcoming last season. There were also problems in central defence, where Martín Demichelis is not getting any younger, Eliaquim Mangala is not developing as quickly or as smoothly as had been anticipated, and Vincent Kompany ended the season with question marks over his decision-making and positioning.

As Burnley’s George Boyd said after the City defeat at Turf Moor that proved an expensive low point in Pellegrini’s season, the then champions do not possess a commanding backline. “If you get in their faces they don’t like it and they have several players who don’t track back as much as they should,” Boyd said. “Liverpool noticed the same thing and exploited it. You can usually find space if you know where to look.”

That is quite a damning criticism, even if – or perhaps especially because – Burnley ended up relegated, yet little appears to have been done to shore up the defence. Perhaps Delph was bought in an effort to persuade Touré to track back more but that is about the best one can say. City are now up against a José Mourinho version of Chelsea, which inevitably comes with the most solid of backlines and a super-organised defensive screen ahead of it.

In comparison City are not as slick. They have issues in central defence and the efforts of their defensive midfielders have been haphazard. Are they going to buy a central defender before the deadline? Or perhaps another striker will be needed should Edin Dzeko follow Stevan Jovetic out of the club.

Wilfried Bony is still around and Sterling should be more than useful but once again it appears City will need an extraordinary season from Sergio Agüero to challenge for major prizes. For a club of their resources, that is a slightly deflating statement to keep making. If the model is Barcelona, then you do not just keep looking to Lionel Messi for inspiration but you add Luis Suárez and Neymar, even if it means freezing out Pedro. It could be argued Sterling is a step in that direction, though on its own it might not be enough.

Similarly, while Delph might be a decent acquisition by English standards, he would struggle to make the Barcelona midfield or even Chelsea’s or Arsenal’s. City should be good for a top-four place next season. They do not appear to be gearing up for a fully committed title challenge, even allowing for the possibility of De Bruyne joining the project. Maybe the season after, once they break free of planning blight. - © Guardian News and Media 2015

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