When Manchester City flew out of the blocks at the start of last season, Pep Guardiola understandably grumbled, mumbled and swore under his breath at the notion the team he recently took charge of could sweep the board at home and abroad.
Ten wins from 10 in all competitions could not explain away an ageing, unbalanced squad inherited from Manuel Pellegrini and some scattergun recruitment by his director of football and friend Txiki Begiristain in the seasons preceding Guardiola’s arrival from Bayern Munich.
On Saturday, the Catalan tactician will tangle with a vibrant Liverpool side and his old sparring partner Jurgen Klopp. It is City’s first game since the close of a transfer window where they spent in excess of £200million, tailoring the squad to their manager’s specifications.
This is on Guardiola’s head now. After a first trophyless campaign of his coaching career it is time to enhance or break his lofty reputation.
City’s off-target manoeuvres on deadline day have raised the stakes in this respect.
Guardiola’s squad is younger now and the upgrades at full-back were an overdue necessity. Benjamin Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo did not come cheap but add much-needed dynamism that the long-serving Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov were no longer able to provide.
Mendy is City’s only senior left-back. He made his debut in the fitful and dramatic 2-1 win at Bournemouth before the international break. Right-back Danilo, midfielder Fernandinho and winger Leroy Sane were deployed on the left-hand side of defence across the opening two matches.
And yet, deadline day was spent pursuing Alexis Sanchez for a reported £60m. If the attacker Guardiola desired had arrived from Arsenal, he would have contested a place in the City forward line with Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva and Sane.
Again, City have one senior left-back. Not to mention options in holding midfield of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, who have both seen better days, along with Ilkay Gundogan, who hopes for less-injured days to come. Talking of injuries, should the latest murmurings about Vincent Kompany’s fitness prove accurate, the accident prone and unwanted Eliaquim Mangala will be within touching distance of a starting place at centre-back.
For a coach who describes his teams’ control and stability within games as a foundation of success, the extended pursuit of Sanchez when such imbalances remain feels like a flight of fancy on Guardiola’s part. Then there is the potential impact of the saga upon Aguero and Sterling.
When Klopp’s Liverpool arrive at the Etihad Stadium, Guardiola might feel pangs of envy given his counterpart boasts a team in prime form and playing completely in line with his coaching and tactical vision.
City have dazzled irresistibly at times under Guardiola – the fledgling link-up between Bernardo and David Silva before half-time at Bournemouth standing as the latest example – but they are not yet as convincingly in-sync as Klopp’s Liverpool.
It is on the manager to pull this, and a record of two wins from 10 against top-six opponents last season, around.
Guardiola forged his reputation at Barcelona as a man who improved players significantly within bold tactical masterplans. Grumbling about the finishing of youthful attackers and questionable man-management of one of the most lethal strikers in the game are uncomfortably prevalent themes a year into his tenure at City.
He has assembled a talented but flawed group capable of huge leaps forward, similar to the leaps Barca and Bayern took under a brilliantly innovative tactician.
With Liverpool in town and the chequebook closed for now, Saturday would be a good time for Guardiola’s masterplan to start taking shape. It’s on him now.
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