Why the Premier League title is still Manchester City's to lose
Huddersfield Town were a side that caused Manchester City all sorts of problems last season. Having made City fight to the death for a late winner at the John Smith's Stadium and then keep them from scoring away, the stage was set for Huddersfield to build on those two very impressive showings against the defending champions.
However, as they showed numerous times last season, Pep Guardiola’s men have little regard for stages being set for their opposition, and they played some exhilarating football, putting six past Huddersfield in a scintillating display. They also showed why they are best suited to retaining their title from last season, and here's why.
Lining up in a very attacking 3-5-2, Guardiola started Bernardo Silva at right wing back, hoping that his deftness on the ball would help pick apart an extremely disciplined Huddersfield defence. David Silva returned in central midfield, fuelled by a great personal triumph, as his son Mateo, born prematurely, now accompanied him to the Etihad Stadium. Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus started together up top.
However, whilst all these men played their parts, no one did better than perhaps the man you could be forgiven to have least expected to do so. Benjamin Mendy, whose debut campaign at the Etihad was cut short by an ACL injury last season, seemed raring to go.
Mendy was given near complete freedom from defensive responsibilities, and his surging runs from deep drew the Huddersfield players out of position for Silva and Jesus to exploit. He dominated his flank to the extent that City attacked near exclusively down their left, with Mendy bagging two assists, and being the orchestrator for the third goal. He has now completed 16 crosses in two games, and notched up four assists in the same time frame.
While City played 4-3-3 for the vast majority of last season, they now look extremely comfortable in a 3-5-2. Their options in setting up make them even more unpredictable and more difficult to prepare for.
Fitness Despite The World Cup
Whilst Mendy was absolutely unplayable, Aguero looked sharper and hungrier than ever before. His movement in the box was second to none, and his agility and strength in getting to loose balls before the defenders had no parity. On a day on which he scored a hat trick, he could very easily have had five or six.
Ederson once more reminded us of what a goalkeeper with a good passing range can do, and he secured himself a very well executed assist, with Aguero tucked away ever so audaciously.
Guardiola mentioned before the season started how he might make use of the 3-5-2 formation now that Mendy was back to full fitness. If this is a display of things to come, it will be near impossible for a side to match City man for man in attack, and cover all the possible spaces, both centrally and out wide. Added to this the fact that Aguero, after surgery, is not playing with pain anymore, and City may well adopt the three at the back on a permanent basis this season, provided the fitness of the players isn’t compromised.
Options In Attack – Tactical Systems & Unparalleled Depth
Guardiola also mentioned that he must innovate and discover new ways to attack teams that sit deep and put ten behind the ball. The summer signing of Riyad Mahrez may carry the answer. City under Pep have primarily played a system involving traditional wingers; Raheem Sterling on the right, and Leroy Sane on the left.
The arrival of Mahrez allows him to play Bernardo Silva in central midfield, and also gives him to freedom to start with a system of inverted wingers, that would allow his wide men to cut inside from the flanks and test the goalkeepers. City would be able to play in front and through their opposition, rather than around them.
Further, when the City lineup came out, no one was surprised as to the quality of Guardiola’s first XI. However, a closer look at the bench shed some light into how much strength in depth this side does indeed hold.
City’s bench read: Claudio Bravo, Kyle Walker, who was voted into the PFA team of the season last time out; Raheem Sterling, who secured himself a total of 29 goal involvements last season in the league alone; Leroy Sane, the Young Player of the Season for 2017/18, Riyad Mahrez, City’s record signing; Nicolas Otamendi, who was one of Europe’s best centre halves for much of last season; and academy graduate Phil Foden.
This is taking into the account the long term injury to Kevin De Bruyne, and the unavailability of Fabian Delph.
Of the benched players, at least three walk into any side in the Premier League, and would be extremely desirable targets for Europe’s elite. Such is the competition for places at the Etihad, that even with a starting lineup comprising of the likes of Aguero, Silva, Laporte, Bernardo, Mendy and Jesus, City’s bench was stronger than many first XIs fielded on the matchday. It is true that they have an embarrassment of riches in terms of squad depth, with a world class like-for-like player for nearly every position.
Other teams must beware. Whilst it has been nine seasons since a champion mounted a successful title defence, no one looks more equipped to mount one than the runaway leaders, who won the trophy in record time last time out. And with a squad such as the one they have, the flexibility of their systems, the sharpness of their stars despite a gruelling World Cup year, and the hunger for smashing records, Manchester City look a fearsome side to face. And the title is well and truly theirs to lose.