What will Manchester City look like next season?
Throughout the 2017-2018 campaign, Manchester City have enjoyed success unlike any they have seen in the club’s history.
The Blues currently sit atop the Premier League table with a comfortable 13-point cushion over second place -- and their biggest rival -- Manchester United. While City weren’t able to secure the title against United in a scenario of dreams for City fans worldwide, they will win the title and lock down a bare minimum of 2 trophies in a season.
They’ve already won the Carabao cup, are in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League, and although they’re down 3-0 on aggregate to Liverpool, hope and optimism -- perhaps blind -- remain with City players and fans.
But past that, past all the successes and past the potential disappointments, City have a big summer coming up.
They can’t sit on their laurels like Chelsea have in years past. They can’t afford to become complacent and arrogant and not bring in improvements to the side. The truth is, this iteration of City isn’t ready to compete on the biggest stage of them all—continental competition.
That’s not calling for a rebuild, the core of the team is incredible. But there are a couple minor additions that must be made in order to take the next step and thrust themselves into being serious contenders for the Champions League.
Starting at the back, both fullback positions could see varying degrees of changes this summer. Danilo is reportedly unhappy with his role as a second choice right back and could leave the club for more first team football.
This isn’t a major issue. City have an adequate replacement for the Brazilian in the form of the young Pable Maffeo who has turned heads while on loan at Girona.
Maffeo has shown loads of quality and promise while thrust into difficult situations by an emerging young club that is overachieving. Asking anyone, nevertheless a 20-year-old to man mark Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player of all time is like asking a golden retriever to perform open heart surgery.
The young Catalan has averaged over 3 defensive blocks and 2 clearances per match. He has also lead La Liga in key passes for defenders.
Maffeo is a small, combative, and hard-working player – qualities that are reminiscent of Pablo Zabaleta, a City cult hero. If Maffeo is able to continue progressing under Guardiola’s watchful eye, there is little doubt that he can properly replace Danilo, and eventually become a top class right back.
Shifting over to the left, Benjamin Mendy’s early season ACL injury created a revolving door of band aid fixes at left back. Danilo saw some time there, as did Fabian Delph who became the defacto first choice left back before getting injured himself. Even young Oleksandr Zinchenko, an attacking midfielder, played at the position.
City must make a decision: do they trust Delph’s body and roll with him as second choice, or go out and buy a new rotational option.
Several players are rumored to be candidates for the potential opening. Aaron Martin from Espanyol is reported to have a £20M release clause and be of interest to City. Ryan Bertrand is another, and the 28-year-old Englishmen could leave Southampton on the cheap should the Saints suffer the fate of relegation.
Other options include Phillip Max from Augsburg -- an attacking German fullback with a deadly left foot -- and Ryan Sessegnon, a young teenager shooting up the ranks at Fulham who has been gathering a lot of attention.
The only oddity about Sessegnon is a question around his position, and expectation that he could go through a similar positional change as Gareth Bale, eventually ending up as a winger.
It’s difficult to predict how City will attack the problem, they’ve been forced to shift players all over to cover for the injuries their left backs have suffered, and Aymeric Laporte is the latest impressive mad scientist experiment that Guardiola has conducted to address the issue.
But the concerns over Delph are both real and serious.
As much as he’s a good player and an even better person, he hasn’t been fully fit for an entire season since joining City. Various niggling injury issues have prevented him from being of proper use to City.
Moving up the pitch, another position that could potentially go through the same cycle of issues as the left back position is the holding midfielder spot. Fernandinho has been unbelievably solid this year, but he isn’t getting any younger, and the mileage on his legs after a 16-year professional career is worrisome.
City have already identified a “new” Fernandinho in another diminutive Brazilian midfielder, Fred, from Sharkhtar Donetsk. However, United seem to have hijacked that deal before it could get off the ground.
Other players that have been linked to City include Julian Weigl from Dortmund, Jorginho from Napoli, and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Lazio.
From that list, Fred must remain a top target. But if that were to fall through, one would think that Guardiola would be licking his lips at the prospect of acquiring Weigl.
The German international has an absurd passing range and is immensely intelligent on the pitch. While he may not be as proficient of a ball winner as Fernandinho, his long range passing precision could open up much more for City’s attacking players. There’s also the obvious comparison to Sergio Busquets and how good he was under Pep for Barca.
Weigl’s most impressive season came in his first at Dortmund, where he played in a double pivot with Gundogan, which was abandoned once the latter left. With Guardiola’s continuous tinkering of formation and system, perhaps exploring a 2-man pivot for the first time since joining City is a tactical possibility that intrigues him.
Milinkovic-Savic on the other hand offers a different option in the midfield.
His physicality could help City break through the high presses that they’ve struggled with under Guardiola. While City can pass around teams like there’s no tomorrow, there’s something to be said about a deep lying midfielder that’s able to pick up the ball and power through opponent’s midfields. On top of that, Milinkovic-Savic seems like the kind of player that City have been angling towards under Pep -- incredibly skilled but with an added layer of physicality to help cope with the rugged nature of the English game.
The final piece of City’s summer puzzle is up front.
Talk has been going on for well over a calendar year that Guardiola wants one more forward option, and who can blame him?
Yes, City are the most potent attack in all of England and yes, they have one of the best young forward cores in the continent, but adding another piece to that puzzle would solidify their position and vault them into the elites of Europe.
At first, Sanchez was the main target, but pianos and £300,000 a week got in the way of his move to City, and thus he joined United instead.
Leicester’s Ryhad Mahrez was the subject of a 48-hour transfer deadline day scandal, in which the Algerian didn’t train in order to force a move. It’s unclear whether or not City will reignite their interest in Mahrez or simply move on to a different target, but neither scenario would come as a shock.
In terms of other targets, sensational links to Eden Hazard have been made, although that seems very not realistic and more a fun “what if?” type of thought experiment.
However, one player who City should sign to complete their trident of goals, weird haircuts and diversity is Leon Bailey.
The Jamaican international has been spectacular for Leverkusen this year, scoring 9 goals and adding 5 assists in 28 appearances. It also helps that he already has a relationship with fellow Jamaican, Raheem Sterling.
He fits the profile of a typical Pep winger – that being pace, skill, a strong work ethic, and a high footballing IQ. It’s scary to think how good Bailey would be in City’s current system.
Angus Gunn currently on loan at Norwhich is a likely pick to replace Claudio Bravo, with the Chilean linked with moves away from the Etihad. Delph likely remains a squad player of some type next season. Floating between playing left back or more defensively down the middle of the park in cup competitions.
Phil Foden and Brahim Diaz are two other players who could “complicate” things for Pep and City. The two youngsters have sparingly been involved with the first team, and whether or not they stay with the side or go out on loan is a decision that will likely be taken after pre-season.
This summer in theory should be the quietest in Guardiola’s tenure, but it remains a crucial window if they blues want to be considered a genuine contender for the Champions League
Based on the available evidence -- both speculative and factual -- here is Sports and Other Things prediction for how city will line up next season:
This lineup offers Guardiola many options tactically and in terms of rotation. Bernardo is able to be played more in the middle as was the original plan and the players all seem comfortable with Guardiola's system. The addition of a proper left back will also give City the option to play 3 at the back, thus playing both Aguero and Jesus up front together -- a tactical venture that was impossible to pursue with the injury Mendy suffered.
Photo courtesy of mcfcwatch.com