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We're Due to Learn Plenty About Manchester City

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
 2021-09-23

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Pep Guardiola's side faces Chelsea, PSG and Liverpool in succession, all away from home, in an early stretch that could speak volumes about where the club stands.

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A storm is brewing ahead of Manchester City, and in terms of scheduling it's as ominous as it gets.

Defending European champion Chelsea, fellow financial behemoth PSG and the last team to deny Man City the Premier League title, Liverpool, all await in its next three games. All three games are away from home. All three games are potential Champions League final matchups. All of these opponents are among the best clubs in the world.

Like those other elite teams, Man City has depth to the point that it could probably field two teams that would challenge for Champions League qualification, one where the backups have backups who could break into most first teams. So if Man City is a finely built ship like its crest suggests, then this upcoming stretch must be the storm it was built to endure.

There is a looming issue, though, and it's one whose severity could become more prominent. City apparently felt, for the first time in recent memory, that it could start the season without filling its biggest hole during the summer transfer window, something that has otherwise typically been an extravagant back-to-school shopping exercise for the club. It let a club legend in Sergio Agüero leave, and failed to replace him like it did David Silva, Vincent Kompany and others from that golden generation.

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City was still third among all clubs in summer transfer spending thanks mostly to its £100 million ($136.3 million) luxury swoop for Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish (there were 12 Premier League clubs in the top 25, according to Transfermarkt ). But even that move, which could turn out to be brilliant, looks different considering what could have been.

On the same day that City announced Grealish, Barcelona dropped the bombshell that Lionel Messi was leaving the club due to its financial strife. Man City, with former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola and sporting director Txiki Begiristain at the helm, would've been the clear favorite to land Messi, had they not already committed an English-transfer-record £100 million to his position just hours before.

Much of City's transfer window had the same close-but-no-cigar feel to it. City was never able to convince Spurs to sell Harry Kane—and maybe even couldn't convince Kane himself, who put on a weak-willed clinic in how not to force a transfer . Then Cristiano Ronaldo feigned interest in City, like a high-school teenager would to get an ex jealous, only to re-join Manchester United.

In fact, the transfer tables seemed to have turned in Manchester this year. It's United who moved for its biggest transfer targets, landing Jadon Sancho and Raphaël Varane prior to the late pivot to Ronaldo. Meanwhile, City may be left to rue what could have been as it plays on Grealish as its chief addition (it did also secure moves of less immediate and vital importance: Permanently adding 36-year-old third-string goalkeeper Scott Carson after loan spells and also bringing aboard 18-year-old Brazilian prospect Kayky).

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But the reality is still that the club felt confident enough to move ahead without a center forward outside of Gabriel Jesus, who has often been played on the wing while Ferran Torres operates as a false No. 9.

Although City has endured some early-season struggles with an opening-day loss to Spurs and a lifeless 0–0 draw with Southampton last weekend, this is still a club that scored as many goals (six) against RB Leipzig in Champions League earlier this month as it did on Tuesday in the League Cup against Wycombe Wanderers. It has also put up five each against Arsenal and Norwich City.

Nine players (and an own goal) account for City's 11 Premier League goals this season. Only Torres has scored more than once, and this all comes with main playmaker Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden playing sparingly as they build fitness. Meanwhile, its rock-solid defense has only conceded one Premier League goal.

And we must remember that last season, prior to going on a dominant run en route to another league title, City was as low as 13th after a Matchweek 9 loss to Spurs. It finished the season 12 points ahead of second-place United.

So that is the context in which City must tread into its gauntlet of a schedule and into what is shaping up to be the most competitive Premier League campaign in recent memory.

First up is a Saturday trip to first-place Chelsea, whose transformation from the struggling, rebuilding side under Frank Lampard to complete and tactically astute powerhouse under Thomas Tuchel is complete.

The midseason coaching change last January was a franchise-altering move. Tuchel's arrival led to a surprising, yet well-deserved Champions League title, much to the chagrin of Man City, which entered the final in Porto as the favorite only to watch Tuchel's approach handcuff the domestic champion. In fact, Tuchel has handed Guardiola and City three losses in three competitions since taking over. And now he has a new weapon with which to endure the grueling league campaign in Romelu Lukaku, the very kind of clinical No. 9 that City failed to acquire this summer and was the missing piece for Chelsea .

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After just two full days of rest, it's off to Paris for the Champions League group stage showdown that has been circled on the calendar since the draw. More than ever before, it feels like this is the year that one of the two nation-state-backed teams finally secures its first Champions League title. Even though it's uncertain whether Messi will be fit to show City what it may have missed out on due to a bone bruise, City will finally get a look at a team with just as much depth—if not more—as itself. PSG, which is still learning how to incorporate all of its new pieces and has yet to work Sergio Ramos into the mix, is far from a finished product, but it remains a battle of clubs who have no problem spending into the billions.

And finally, right before the October international break, City heads to Liverpool in a meeting of the last two Premier League champions. Liverpool is the only Premier League team that has had as much stability in its first team as City, and it should've given City a more vigorous title push last season if it weren't for an incomprehensible deluge of injuries, which depleted Jürgen Klopp's center backs and forced the club to have to scrap its way to a top-four berth. But it and Chelsea are two of the Premier League's last three unbeatens, and Klopp, Tuchel and PSG's Mauricio Pochettino are all managers who have matched wits with Guardiola in recent years and given the pensive manager even more to chew on after the final whistle.

City could very well win, draw or lose all three matches without it being too surprising. The only thing that is certain is that in the next 10 days, we will learn a lot about the state of this team and about whether its lack of true strikers is prohibitive. Will its metaphorical ship float on or will it sink? Either way, the season is a long one. No Premier League or Champions League title will be awarded in September or October. And if there's one thing we've already learned about City, it's that it should never be crowned nor counted out too early.

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