Manchester City can reign again with even more Pep in their step

With Klopp showing boot-room smarts, Liverpool likely to be main challengers this year

 Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero  in action during the Charity Shield against Chelsea when he started the season with a brace. Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero in action during the Charity Shield against Chelsea when he started the season with a brace. Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

 

One hundred points, 106 goals, a 19-point gap to second place, a glorious coach, unlimited funds and a team already aware of its own rhythm and devastating possibilities.

At the beginning of a season there really should be some uncertainty about the outcome nine months hence, but if Manchester City adhere to the processes Pep Guardiola set down last season, then City will be the first club in 10 years to successfully defend their Premier League title.

There is historic knowledge of Manchester City’s capacity for spectacular failure and City – it is has been mentioned again this week: the fact, for example, that City followed their first ever league title in 1937 with relegation in 1938.

Today’s reality, however, makes comparison invalid. Backed by Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth, the club is now a small city-state. Every logistical problem can be solved with money, and the majority of football issues too.

The original Maine Road Man City was so different an entity it would be useful in understanding the power of the new City if it went by another name. It is hard to imagine Guardiola allowing a half-time team-talk to be given by a comedian, as occurred in 1989.

This does not invalidate the new City’s quality. The football produced last season was at times of such joy and excellence that it is equally hard to imagine a drop-off. Instead ponder Kevin de Bruyne getting better, or remember Gabriel Jesus is only 21. What if Phil Foden starts to earn the “Stockport Iniesta” label?

And if City improve, who can catch them?

That so few think the answer lies across Manchester at Old Trafford is more remarkable than any sense of progress in the past, say, six months under Jose Mourinho.

United have invested and invested in the years – now five – since Alex Ferguson retired and yet here they are with 33-year-old converted winger Antonio Valencia at right-back and 33 year-old converted winger Ashley Young at left back.

Mourinho’s surly summer may not be over. He has gained Fred but Paul Pogba’s leaving seems in motion.

It is Merseyside from where the most likely challenge to City will come. Liverpool defeated Guardiola’s team three times last season and while there were elements of fortune about the two Champions League matches, the Reds’ vivacity is not something to be explained away. It is real and impressive.

Jurgen Klopp is building something and, over the past eight months, in Virgil van Dijk, goalkeeper Alisson, and midfielder Fabinho, Klopp has addressed weaknesses. The signings should not merely justify themselves as individuals, they should improve Liverpool’s overall structure and lift them a level.

Interesting signing

Arguably the most interesting signing anywhere this summer is Naby Keita, because it happened last summer. Liverpool agreed a €59m fee with Leipzig for Keita and allowed him to stay on for a season. This act of long-term planning is rare in modern football and could be called Paisleyite (Bob, not Ian) due to its foresight and patience. It is boot-room smart.

Keita is 23, from Guinea and shuttles around in a manner than should energise Liverpool’s midfield.

Though it feels longer, Mo Salah arrived only a year ago at Anfield and if Keita has half Salah’s impact – and Salah goes again – then the gap to City will surely not be the 25 points it was in May.

Liverpool no longer have the look of a team easily distracted. They drew 3-3 at Watford on last season’s opening day, one of 12 draws. Another came at home to Burnley in September.

City won those respective fixtures 0-6 and 3-0.

City’s defence begins on Sunday at Arsenal, where in March they were 3-0 ahead after 33 minutes. It was half an hour which contributed to the belated confirmation that Arsène Wenger’s time was over after 22 years.

Beautiful old Highbury was home when Wenger took charge and the club represented tradition, London and a certain way of doing things. As of this week Arsenal are owned by American entrepreneur Stan Kroenke and inhabit a stadium designed to maximise income. Franchise is a word circling Arsenal. Marble used to be the word.

Wenger is no more. If his withdrawal from the landscape does not feel physical in the way it did when Ferguson departed, it will have an effect.

It could be positive. In coming sixth in Wenger’s final season, Arsenal lost more matches than Burnley. Unai Emery has arrived and made needed defensive signings in the shape of Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Lucas Torreira. In attack Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should be settled.

Playing in the Europa League with its Thursday-Sunday routine will be an inconvenience but last season’s drop-off leaves scope for improvement. Arsenal were 12 points off a Champions League place. It will be a surprise if they sag again.

Chelsea are similar in that they have a new manager in Maurizio Sarri, replacing Antonio Conte, although the appointment of a new coach at Stamford Bridge is not a novelty.

Twelve months ago Chelsea were defending champions. They started by losing at home to Burnley. Diego Costa was on unofficial strike.

Inflationary madness

Now Thibaut Courtois has done a Costa in order to force through a transfer to Real Madrid, but more significantly, Eden Hazard has not. For a stunning €80m Kepa Arrizabalaga has joined from Athletic Bilbao. Is it a declaration of intent from Chelsea or another sign of the inflationary madness of the market?

The other member of the Big Six, Tottenham, have a stadium to pay for. They will start the season without a stellar acquisition – or in fact any acquisition. Has Mauricio Pochettino done as much as he can with this squad?

It is rude to refer to the other 14 clubs as a mass but only 23 points separated them, which is the case Rafa Benitez has been making loudly on Tyneside. Newcastle United ended up a commendable 10th but just four points covered six clubs.

Benitez wanted to add quality. Owner Mike Ashley wants to buy low, sell high and keep the wage bill below €110m, which is not a small sum.

The schism – and that’s what it is – will mean protests on Saturday lunchtime, yet Newcastle could start with a home win. Spurs look vulnerable, while there is something about Salomon Rondon which says Newcastle No. 9.

Newcastle, Brighton and Huddersfield all came up in May 2017 and stayed up. West Brom, Stoke and Swansea were startled.

It is a lesson others will have learned, but Wolves and Fulham in particular have the financial wherewithal and team unit to disconcert so-called established clubs.

Wolves possess the exquisite Ruben Neves (21) and Fulham have Ryan Sessegnon (18). Both clubs have bought well. The shock will be if they go down, not if they stay up.

Bournemouth, Brighton and West Ham have opened their wallets again. Everton and Southampton cannot be as bad or boring this time around. Leicester are without Riyad Mahrez for the first time in five seasons. Burnley are still growing.

Crystal Palace might have nervous moments and Watford could struggle. Cardiff City are back in blue but might just not have enough. Then again, that was said about them in the Championship; a team ethos got them up.

Team coherence was something seen in the World Cup with Croatia and Uruguay. It might be back in fashion.

By the way, the World Cup is over. The Premier League is back.

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