Manchester City may settle for a repeat of much of last season but they start with an unwanted similarity. Once again, they begin with players deprived of proper preparation after a curtailed summer. It is another challenge if they can react and adapt accordingly.
Thursday was the first time City’s squad, bar the injured Phil Foden, were all together in training; even then Kevin de Bruyne was not able to take part in the full session and he will miss Sunday's game at Tottenham. Their other England internationals, apart from new signing Jack Grealish, missed the Community Shield. Harry Kane, who Pep Guardiola had hoped would spearhead his attack, may line up against City instead.
“We know we are still a way away from our best condition,” said the City manager. “This is normal. We could not have a pre-season with 75 or 85 per cent of the players fit. But it is reality. Play with them, day by day, week by week and game by game, rejoin the players to the team to the dynamic and put in best condition to pick as best a squad as possible to win games.”
It was not a simple process last season. Guardiola felt an undercooked City were hanging on in their opening 3-1 victory at Wolves. They won only three of their opening eight games and slipped to 13th in November. “The most impressive thing at the start was we had to adjust, we had to adapt and [make] no complaints,” Guardiola said. “That is why we had success: because we did not cry in the beginning. The reality is what it is: adapt and go forward.”
Which City eventually did in spectacular style, in a run of 16 straight victories. “We start to win, to win, to win and in three or four months we are unbeatable,” said their manager.
The chastening aspect is that they may need to be better again. The champions’ total of 86 points put them 12 clear of runners-up Manchester United. And yet the eventual winners in each of the four previous seasons posted higher tallies.
“Two teams, Manchester City and Liverpool, raised the bar and we have had to have 90, 90, 90, 90 [points] to be champions,” Guardiola said. “That’s what we have to do every season. The trophy is in the cabinet, for sure, but we start from zero.” So another slow start could come at a cost. “We will try to avoid it but nobody knows,” Guardiola said.
He sees another potential seven-way struggle, given the strength in depth of the Premier League, and views City as the continuity candidates. Their record scorer, Sergio Aguero has gone, and a record buy has come, but it is only one major departure and arrival apiece. “It’s actually quite a similar team to last season,” he said. “Sergio has left, so Jack comes in but the rest are the same. I don’t know if we will sign a striker. That depends.”
If, in part, it depends on whether Tottenham countenance selling Kane, Guardiola is keen to rebuff theories City are big spenders.
He argues that City’s net outlay is rather lower after parting company with some fringe figures and courtesy of sell-on clauses. “I said last year that we couldn't spend £100 million,” he explained.
“We have bought Jack Grealish because we sell for £60 million, so in the end we have spent £40 million. There are owners who want benefits for themselves. Our owners don’t want any benefits. They want to reinvest in the team. Each club has its own reality, its own history. And every owner of every club decides how he wants to live.”