After completing the double in his first season in charge at Manchester City, the 2014/15 season ended trophyless for Manuel Pellegrini, with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea romping away with the Premier League title.
Lacklustre performances and inconsistent form left fans questioning the tactical aptitude of the Chilean and the commitment and desire of the players.
A multitude of factors all played their part: an ageing squad, injuries, a below-par defence and conflicting tactics didn’t help their cause. An inability to a) deliver a decent corner into the box and b) score from one didn’t go unnoticed. Unexpected points dropped against inferior opposition meant no gold badges on the shirt this season. With rumours circling that Pep has already agreed to take over at the Etihad next season, surely Pellegrini will be looking to end his tenure on a high?
Most people know to expect the unexpected as far as City are concerned, but here are five things the sky blue contingency can look forward to this season.
Magic in Midfield
City already had a plethora of talent in the middle of the park, but all eyes will be on £49 million record signing Raheem Sterling. He has already impressed during pre season, forging a promising understanding with Spanish magician David Silva, scoring and assisting.
Question marks hover over how much £8 million man Fabian Delph will feature after his indecisive move from Aston Villa, but he is a useful addition, adding to the English quota and providing more strength in depth.
Grafter James Milner will be a miss following his move to Anfield, but Yaya Toure’s decision to stay is a notable boost, if dependant on which Yaya decides to perform: the third top scorer in the Premier League two seasons ago or the performs-when-he-wants Yaya. Fernando and Fernandinho are hit and miss, and neither quite fill the boots and offer the protection to the back four as Mr Under-Rated Gareth Barry did.
Samir Nasri, temperament aside, is more than capable of creation and inspiration but Jesus Navas tends to be more pace than product. If Kevin De Bruyne opts to sign from Wolfsburg, on paper City’s midfield wouldn’t look too far out of place in most people’s Fantasy Football team. If you could afford it.
There are not enough superlatives in football vocabulary to do Sergio Aguero justice. It’s equally as difficult to try and reflect his value to City and their fans. Simply put, he is worth his weight in gold. Undoubtedly the best striker ever to play for the club (although Lee Bradbury and Bob Taylor do offer stiff competition), the 27 year old bagged the Golden Boot last season and continues to be the main man upfront at the Etihad.
With 26 goals in 33 appearances last season and a 4.5 shots per game ratio, Pellegrini will be praying the Argentine remains fit and injury-free ahead of City’s title assault. The stats don’t lie: Aguero has scored 78 goals in 120 Premier League appearances for City. Whether the Chilean plays him in a 4-5-1, 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 alongside Wilfried Bony is irrelevant: this is Aguero. He will score goals regardless. His touch, vision and movement is complimented superbly by his midfield assistant, the mercurial Silva.
But the irresistible quality about Kun is that he will score a goal from nothing. He’s a proven match winner, capable of sealing all three points on his own with a look up at goal, a mazy run out to the right of the box that leaves a trail of defenders in his wake and a blast of the ball past the hopeless goalkeeper into the back of the net.
It’s a good job City have him too, with Stefan Jovetic now at Inter and Edin Dzeko heading to Roma, the Blues will be decidedly lightweight up top and relying on Aguero staying fit, notching up a desirable goal tally. But, as proven by the Delph saga, while the window is open, anything can happen and City are capable of pulling off coups in the transfer market.
Youth – if Pellegrini opts for it
If pre-season is good for one thing, it’s getting to see some of the future stars playing alongside the big guns. Case in point, City’s Elite Development Squad (that’s French for Academy players to you and I). It’s hardly a definitive barometer, but having a glimpse into the talent coming through can only ever be a good thing.
Players like defender Jason Denayer and striker Kelechi Iheanacho have impressed and looked comfortable alongside their senior counterparts. Along with Marcos ‘Rony’ Lopes, these three starlets have just been given a huge vote of confidence, being promoted to the first team squad for the 2015/16 season.
It’s no great secret that City drafted in two ex-Barcelona officials, Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soraino as Director of Football and Chief Executive respectively, to help recreate the model of football so successful at the Catalan club. But when nurturing youth through to the first team is a key component of said success, and is yet to happen during their employment, it inevitable raises question marks as to why it hasn’t. Is that due to foreign megastar imports dominating throughout the first team, a lack of bona fide quality being produced through the EDS worthy of a place in the starting XI, or is it that Pellegrini is reluctant to place his Premier League chips on supposed unproven players with a trophy-winning pedigree?
The only way youth can prosper is by being given a chance to prove themselves at the highest level. If the kids never get an opportunity to prove their worth, we will never find out what they are capable of.
18 year old Iheanacho played in five games pre-season: with two goals and two assists, the Nigerian certainly attracted a lot of attention, justifiably so. Permit issues prevented him from featuring last season, but the striker could be a surprise pick up front. Powerful, imposing, with a superb technique and sharp first touch, Iheanacho has the self-belief, drive and skill to make it and may even feature in some part for the trip to the Hawthorns when City play West Bromwich Albion in their first game of the season on Monday.
Although just 20 years old, Denayer’s loan to Celtic resulted in him being named PFA’s Scotland Young Player of the Year last season and collecting a Scottish Premiership winner’s medal. The Belgian defender has also represented his country at senior level. He’s confident on the ball, smart and not afraid to put a foot in when required. Ironically, many are tipping him to replace his fellow Belgian teammate Vincent Kompany in the heart of the City defence following the captain’s dip in form.
Lopes is a genuinely exciting prospect. His name will be slightly more familiar as he has featured in a substitute role before, during a handful of cup appearances. He’s a playmaker with pace, a midfielder who thrives in the role just behind the striker. With experience at Lille, he’s been knocking on the first team door, but chances have been limited due to Nasri and Silva dominating in his position. He’s technically gifted with a cracking left foot and sublime eye for a pass, capable of moments of magic.
Other top EDS tips include Argentine Bruno Zuculini, Brandon Barker and Patrick Roberts, who signed from Fulham in July. But the confirmation of the three graduates to the first team squad means Pellegrini has vitality, enthusiasm and raw talent to opt for in the hunt for the Premier League crown this season.
Will he stay or will he go?
You may be wondering whether this point is something to look forward to or something to dread. It could go either way, but it’s definitely to be expected. With Pellegrini only having one year left on his contract, with no word of any discussions regarding his future at the club on the horizon, this could be the final season for the Chilean in Manchester.
Success has been indifferent: a Capital One Cup and Premier League double in his first season in England followed by a trophy-less second campaign have left many wondering if the early successes can be replicated now Jose is back in town and Arsenal are becoming more confident. That’s where the uncertainty and unpredictability lies – and it just wouldn’t be City without a bit of both.
It’s all down to Pellegrini. Whether he plays a consistent back four. If he plays the right system when required (4-5-1 against Barca please!). To be unafraid of making big judgement calls like dropping big name players when a lack of form cries out to. The latter point was proven with Joe Hart to acclaim, but if Yaya or Vincent Kompany are out of sorts, the name on the back of the shirt shouldn’t be enough to warrant a start.
Pick players on form and not just merit. It’s a testament to the character of the player and the strength of a manager as to how both respond in that situation. Pellegrini is almost in a ‘nothing to lose’ situation, which can prove dangerous. It’s a question of his ambition and desire. He will want to do well no matter what, as results dictate whether his CV glows or casts a shadow over future employment options.
Fans are aware that City’s signings haven’t been so much Pellegrini’s as the Barcelona duos. But a manager can only do the best with the tools he has to hand. It’s up to him to control any egos, to motivate, to discipline, to encourage and to excite. Does he have that in his armoury? It’s been noted that the Chilean is more This Charming Man than Mr Charisma, who doesn’t incite and invoke like Jose.
Some fans like that he is cool, calm and well-mannered, some would prefer a little bit more spice with their sugar and a splash of visible passion (think more fist punches rather than Paolo Di Canio). Success is almost expected on all four fronts from the City hierarchy. They will be looking for further progress in the Champions League and an all-out assault for the Capital One, FA Cups and the Premier League trophy. If that doesn’t happen?
Well, Pep is allegedly waiting in the wings. If not Pep, another manager will undoubtedly step in. Football is a results business and this season is a measure of the manager that Pellegrini is.
Defensive question marks
Last season City’s defence was disturbingly below par, with captain Vincent Kompany alarmingly out of sorts. Eliaquim Mangala also initially raised alarm bells after his £40 million arrival from Porto, but the Frenchman seemed to settle more in the closing stages of the season, forming a partnership with Martin Demichelis. Along with Gael Clichy, Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna and Aleksandar Kolarov, the back four chopped and changed in dizzying fashion, providing no consistency and solidity where it was needed the most.
This inevitably had a say on where the Premier League title ended up. You can’t change the defence that often and not expect confusion and disruption. It’s understandable when injuries occur, or a loss of form and a player has to be dropped, but for it to continue for the best part of a season when your side are in the hunt for trophies is unacceptable. Plus, certain players seemed to suffer unexpected losses of form: Zabaleta, the Argentine Mancunian warrior, came back from the World Cup looking like a shade of his former self. Kompany, widely regarded as one of the world’s best centre backs at this point, looked lost. City fans were left scratching their heads as to what had gone wrong.
These worries have not been eased during pre-season, particularly during City’s 4-2 defeat at Stuttgart. But friendly games can be taken with a relative pinch of salt: when the Premier League season gets started is where answers to questions will be found. Will Pellegrini settle the defence and who will he choose as his central defensive partnership? Will he stick with his captain and hope for improvements? Will he punt on youth and pair Denayer with Mangala? Will he go with the Mangala-Demichelis partnership from last season? Or will he be indecisive and change his mind week in, week out?
Admittedly, City’s defence was left vulnerable, with performances from Brazilians Fernando and Fernandinho (it’s very confusing) distinctly average. There’s a reason why Brazil isn’t renowned for its defensive midfielders. An interesting theory being posed is whether Kompany would be more effective in that role, a position he played in during his early days at the club. Thankfully there are no such worries in goal, with Joe Hart expected to be as solid as ever.
With the Pep saga looking likely to continue for the foreseeable, City definitely have the quality throughout their squad to push Chelsea and Arsenal all the way to secure their third Premier League title. A couple more new additions to the squad should be expected at the Etihad, with business far from done for this transfer window. With the midfield looking exciting, Aguero scoring the goals, England’s number one in goal and young talent viable options, the only question marks lie in defence.
Settle the defence or opt for the Kevin Keegan strategy- just score more than you concede. No Pellegrini, that was a joke…