London (AFP) – Rattled by a chastening first season in England, Pep Guardiola has gone back to the drawing board in an attempt to fashion Manchester City into Premier League champions.
Expectations were sky-high when Guardiola alighted in Manchester after years of being courted by City, but a title challenge failed to materialise and his side did not make a mark in any of the cup competitions.
They return to the fray this weekend having spent around £200 million ($261 million, 221.3 million euros) on players and Guardiola believes an exciting new team is taking shape.
“With all respect to the players, last season we were one of the oldest teams in the Premier League. We didn’t buy full-backs for five, six years,” said Guardiola.
“We decided last season we could change the team to make the team younger for the next four or five years.
“Danilo is 26, (Benjamin) Mendy is 23, Bernardo (Silva) is 22, Ederson is 23, so we bought players who are going to be stable for the next years.”
There were some promising signs last season — an opening salvo of 10 straight wins, a stunning Champions League victory over Barcelona — but City never found any consistent form.
Guardiola seemed unprepared for the rude physicality of English football and was derided for saying he was “not a coach for the tackles” after a one-sided 4-2 defeat at Leicester City.
City’s football was, occasionally, dazzling and they were only outscored by champions Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, but finding an effective defensive configuration gave Guardiola a constant headache.
John Stones looked shaky following his big-money move from Everton and Guardiola’s dissatisfaction with his full-back options saw midfielders Fernandinho and Jesus Navas deployed in the wide defensive positions.
There should not be any shoehorning of players into unfamiliar roles this season after Guardiola signed three top-level full-backs — Kyle Walker, Benjamin Mendy and Danilo — at a combined cost of around £124 million.
– Aguero-Jesus conundrum –
Guardiola hopes to have put his goalkeeping problems to bed as well, having reacted to Claudio Bravo’s travails by bringing in Brazil goalkeeper Ederson from Benfica in a £35 million deal.
Bernardo Silva, meanwhile, arrived from Monaco, further strengthening a stellar attacking department that also contains Sergio Aguero, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sane, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling.
“Manchester City have the best team on paper,” ex-England midfielder Owen Hargreaves told the Premier League official website.
“It took a bit of an adjustment for Pep Guardiola, but City are my favourites.”
Back-up goalkeeper Willy Caballero, full-backs Pablo Zabaleta, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy and wingers Jesus Navas and Nolito have all left, while the unwanted Joe Hart has gone out on loan again to West Ham United.
Guardiola has tested out a three-man defence in pre-season, with Stones lining up alongside Nicolas Otamendi and captain Vincent Kompany, whose ability to remain fit will once again be under scrutiny.
Playing three at the back may enable Guardiola to associate Aguero and Jesus in attack, after he generally used a single-striker system last season following Jesus’s arrival in January.
Even more so than his old foe Jose Mourinho across town at Manchester United, if Guardiola cannot at the very least orchestrate a sustained title challenge, his gilded reputation will take a sizeable hit.
Last season was the first time in his managerial career that he finished a campaign without having added at least one trophy to his collection.
Another season without silverware will raise serious doubts as to whether he really is the man to carry City to the summit of European football for the first time.