There is no doubt that Manchester City have been the best Premier League team over the last five years. Last season’s title triumph was their fourth in that time, as Pep Guardiola’s side finished a point clear of Liverpool in another titanic two-way tussle between two of the greatest teams in English football history. City will begin this season as the favourites to claim the prize once again, with Guardiola desperate to combine Premier League glory with City’s first ever Champions League trophy.
The scary thing for the rest of the division is that City have got even stronger over the summer. Their title success last time out came despite the absence of a conventional striker, after a move for Harry Kane failed to materialise in 2021. Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne all shared false nine duties, and City still finished as the Premier League top scorers by finding the back of the net 99 times.
Enter their new Norwegian striker. City have signed one of the most prolific marksmen in world football, with the 21-year-old joining a club his father, Alf-Inge, used to represent. With a record of 86 goals in 89 games for Borussia Dortmund, we can expect him to mount a strong challenge for the Golden Boot in 2022/23.
City will not be a one-man team, though. Guardiola remains the most important figure at the Etihad Stadium and he will continue to preach the importance of the collective. City are masters at grinding teams down with their dazzling passing routines, while the champions’ pressing is a pivotal part of their game. That off-the-ball work from front to back is a big part of why Guardiola’s side concede so few goals.
City will once again be pushed all the way by Liverpool, but last season’s Premier League title winners will fancy their chances of lifting the trophy again in May.
Predicted XI (4-3-3)
Ederson; Kyle Walker, Ruben Dias, John Stones, Joao Cancelo; Kevin De Bruyne, Rodri, Bernardo Silva; Riyad Mahrez, their new Norwegian striker, Phil Foden.
For all that the wealth of City’s owners has turned the club into a European powerhouse, they would not be among the teams that have won the Premier League title the most were it not for Guardiola. Whatever happens in his career from this point onwards, the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss is already among the greatest managers in the history of the sport. Almost 15 years after he won the treble in his debut campaign with Barca, Guardiola remains at the vanguard of modern coaching.
The underlying principles remain the same as when he first occupied the dugout, but Guardiola continues to adapt and innovate. Players continually get better on his watch. He is a master at making tactical tweaks to pre-empt what opposition managers might do to try and stop the City juggernaut. And even after six years in Manchester, the players have not grown tired of his messaging.
City may have to prepare for life after Guardiola sooner rather than later. His contract expires next summer, so this could feasibly be his last campaign at the Etihad. No matter who replaces him, City will be downgrading.
Player to watch
It will be fascinating to see how City’s new striker gets on. Guardiola was happy to use various players in the false nine role last season, and Lionel Messi previously thrived in that position under the Catalan’s tutelage at Barcelona.
Yet it is wrong to say, as some have, that Guardiola does not work well with more conventional strikers. Sure, he did not get on with Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the Camp Nou, but Guardiola helped Robert Lewandowski and Sergio Aguero develop their all-round games at Bayern and City respectively. He could do the same with his new frontman, whose ratio of 0.96 goals per game throughout his two and a half years at Borussia Dortmund has got City supporters salivating.
However, it is not quite as simple as adding 30 or so goals to the 99 that City scored without the Norwegian last term. Their success in 2021/22 came in sharing the goals around, but we can expect less of that this time around. Just like Mohamed Salah at Liverpool, the ex-Borussia Dortmund man will dominate City’s goalscoring chart. And on the rare occasions when their passing game does not prise open the opposition’s backline, the powerful Norwegian can help to batter the door down.
Kalvin Phillips (Leeds), Norwegian striker (Borussia Dortmund), Julian Alvarez (River Plate), Stefan Ortega (Arminia Bielefeld)
Gabriel Jesus (Arsenal), Oleksandr Zinchenko (Arsenal), Raheem Sterling (Chelsea), Fernandinho (Released), Gavin Bazunu (Southampton)
Our Premier League score card
Ederson is the perfect goalkeeper for a team managed by Guardiola. His distribution is so good that the Brazilian would probably not look out of place in the centre of midfield. It is not just that Ederson is capable of landing the ball on the foot of a team-mate from 80 yards away, but also that he is comfortable receiving possession at all times.
His composure is remarkable, as evidenced by a moment of superhuman coolness against Liverpool last season. Even when he makes a rare error with the ball at his feet, Ederson has the mental capacity to get the mistake out of his mind almost immediately – a vital quality if you are going to keep goal for a Guardiola side.
Ederson is also a fine shot-stopper, although his reflexes are not quite as sharp as Thibaut Courtois or Alisson Becker, the two best goalkeepers in the world. Even so, Guardiola would not swap him for anyone.
Manchester City conceded the joint-fewest goals in the Premier League last season. That is not just because of the individual defenders they have at their disposal, but also due to City’s ability to dominate possession and keep the ball away from their opponents for long periods. We often think of defending as a reactive task, envisaging centre-backs making last-ditch blocks and full-backs throwing their bodies in front of the ball. City, conversely, are a world-class defensive team because they are proactive.
We should not underestimate their individual defenders, though. Ruben Dias was the Premier League’s Player of the Year in 2019/20 after a magnificent debut season at the Eithad. In Aymeric Laporte and John Stones, the Portuguese has two complementary partners who are likely to share the minutes this term.
At right-back Kyle Walker seems to be getting better with age. His recovery pace is a vital part of City’s tactical approach, allowing them to defend high up the pitch in the knowledge that the England international can make up ground quickly if needed. On the other side of the defence, Joao Cancelo is a playmaker at left-back.
Guardiola’s teams have always been defined by their midfield and Manchester City are no different. Kalvin Phillips has replaced Fernandinho, who called time on his hugely successful nine-year spell at the club at the end of last season. But such is City’s strength in the engine room, Phillips will find starts hard to come by in 2022/23.
Rodri was the best holding midfielder in the Premier League last time out. An intelligent reader of the game, the Spaniard breaks up play in an understated but impressive way. He is also a probing passer, firing balls between the lines for his team-mates higher up the pitch. Rodri is not quite as good as peak Sergio Busquets, but he performs a similar function in this City side.
The fact that Ilkay Gundogan is no longer a guaranteed starter says everything about how good City’s midfield is. Perhaps only Mohamed Salah can challenge Kevin De Bruyne for the title of ‘best player in the Premier League’. The Belgium international is a true all-rounder who excels in every aspect of the game. Bernardo Silva, with his blend of trickery and tenacity, is not far behind him.
City were the Premier League top scorers in 2021/22, ending the season just one goal short of triple figures. The arrival of the Norwegian striker will change the way they attack, but it would be a surprise if he does not score at least 20 times. Some have questioned whether he can thrive if he is denied space in behind to run into, but City’s abundance of talented creators means he will get plenty of chances.
There will be important contributions from elsewhere too. Riyad Mahrez was City’s chief goal-getter last season; the Algeria international is probably one of the most underrated forwards in Europe. It is true that everyone knows that Mahrez wants to cut onto his stronger left foot and take shots at goal, but preventing him doing so is far harder than it sounds.
Raheem Sterling has joined Chelsea and Gabriel Jesus has signed for Arsenal, but keep an eye out for new boy Julian Alvarez. The former River Plate man could feature more than people are anticipating, while there is hope at City that Jack Grealish might explode after an underwhelming first season in Manchester.
City once had the strongest squad in the Premier League, but they have arguably been overtaken by Liverpool in that regard. Indeed, when the two teams met in the FA Cup semi-final in April, City’s substitutes included the unproven duo of Liam Delap and Romeo Lavia.
Elsewhere, Zack Steffen is an inferior goalkeeper to Liverpool’s No.2 Caoimhin Kelleher, while the aforementioned departures of Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus means City will be without players who started a combined 44 Premier League games last season.
Final score: 48/50
It is hard to separate Manchester City and Liverpool, the two best teams in Europe over the last few years. Neither side has any significant weaknesses, while there is nothing to choose between the two managers. City have had the edge in the Premier League in recent years, though, and the addition of their new superstar striker could help them finish above the Reds once more.