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Can anyone stop Manchester City and Pep Guardiola making history this season?

Liverpool may fall just short again, while Chelsea and Manchester United could be in for long, tough seasons.

Pep Guardiola watches on ahead of Jurgen Klopp.
Pep Guardiola watches on ahead of Jurgen Klopp.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

IN THE ENTIRE history of English football, Alex Ferguson is the only manager to ever put three top-division titles back-to-back. This season, Pep Guardiola – hardly a man impervious to ideas about his own legacy – has the chance to join him.

Last season Guardiola said that one of his team’s achievements was to tell the rest of the league that 100 points must be the target to win the title now, given his side have averaged 99 across the last two seasons.

No side has ever so brutally compressed the margins of error like this City side have, and realistically, the chasing pack will probably need them to falter slightly and fall closer to the 90-point mark.

Are they any weaker this season? The loss of Vincent Kompany is certainly a blow, both in terms of his off-field leadership and his on-pitch contribution. Beyond the superb Aymeric Laporte, as is the case with many Guardiola teams, they look vulnerable at centre-back.

But this weakness with Pep’s teams almost always remains theoretical, as the opposition rarely manage to test them. (Bournemouth didn’t even have a shot against them in a game last season.)

Mo Salah last week showed they are rickety at left-back too, but there are so few sides good enough to test City in these areas that these issues often don’t matter.

Beyond that, new signing Rodri is the closest thing Guardiola has had to Sergio Busquets since he left Barcelona, and while Rodri will provide cover for Fernandinho, he will probably play at centre-back against most of the sides from Watford down.

Manchester City v Liverpool - Community Shield - Wembley Stadium Rodri. Source: Nigel French

Oh, and Kevin De Bruyne will almost certainly make a much bigger contribution to this campaign, having started just 11 league games last season.

There are other small things that may work in City’s favour – the new rule around goal kicks, which allows defenders take the ball in the penalty area, and thus gives them more space to work around the high opposition press, gives Guardiola another tiny margin to exploit in big games against Liverpool and Spurs.

It may not make a difference – but that all of 11mm separated City from Liverpool at the Etihad last season is a reminder of the high-wire act that has become of the Premier League’s title race.

On the other hand, losing Leroy Sane – to either long-term injury or Bayern – would be a significant blow, and then there is the question of their vanity and the Champions League. It is the trophy both City and Pep crave more than any, so if they again make the quarter-finals, will it steal some focus from the Premier League?

That wasn’t the case last season, when Kevin De Bruyne sat out most of the ultimately fatal first-leg defeat to Spurs and played against Crystal Palace five days later. In this context, Liverpool’s trip to the Etihad days before the Champions League quarter-finals may offer Jurgen Klopp’s side an opportunity…but only if they have manage to keep pace with the champions.

So can Liverpool, in the words of a former captain, go again? 

Spain: Tottenham Hotspur - Liverpool (CL final) Virgil van Dijk and Mo Salah celebrate winning the European Cup in June. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Their rusty but no-less gutsy comeback in the second half of the Community Shield suggests they are at least determined to.

But even matching last season’s performance will be difficult.  Last season, Liverpool benefitted from late winners against Everton, Tottenham, Newcastle and Crystal Palace – two of those goals were totally freakish – and had Alisson Becker, Virgil van Dijk, Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane available for 95% of their games.

They played relentlessly and superbly, had more than their fair share of luck with injury and happenstance, lost only once all season, collected 97 points…and still they finished second.

Given they haven’t added an outfield senior player to their squad at all over the summer, how can they hope to improve? Thrice before in the Premier League, Liverpool have followed up a second-placed finish by ending up outside the top four, although all of those failures were precipitated by the sale of a key player – Nicolas Anelka, Xabi Alonso, and Luis Suarez. 

This time they’ve crucially kept their squad together, and Klopp will hope for the contributions from Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain missing from last season. 

If Liverpool are to keep the furious pace, they will need fresh input from these players along with similar fortune with injuries. Okay, they have signed their key players because of their strong injury profile, but this will be tested by a fixture pile-up, particularly mid-season. 

Participation in the Club World Cup in Qatar could lead to 10 games in 29 days over the winter, the time of the season at which Liverpool have always dipped under Klopp.

So if you thought the Liverpool manager has disrespected the FA Cup with his selections in the past, wait until you see what he does to it this season. Kenny Dalglish might get a game. 

Although Liverpool targeted Lyon’s No.10 Nabil Fekir a year ago, they decided to pass on the transfer after a medical, and they have still yet to sign that kind of dainty talent that can prise space from tight, central areas. Instead, Liverpool switched the points of their attack to the flanks. 

This worked most of the time, but they occasionally looked blunt when their first-choice full-backs were absent. The scoreless draw at Old Trafford was made mostly of bad right-wing crosses by James Milner, and in a season of tiny margins, it ultimately cost them.  

“[City] can play in a small space, that’s why they are champions”, said Louis Van Gaal at the end of it all. 

This is an outstanding Liverpool squad of exceptional mental resolve; it is their best of the Premier League era and probably one of the ten best ever to play in the competition.

It is their great misfortune, then, to be together at the same time Pep Guardiola is running the best team the competition has ever seen.

French Cup Final - PSG Beats Les Herbiers 2-0 New Spurs signing Giovanni Lo Celso. Source: Liewig Christian/ABACA

Away from the top two, Spurs have probably done enough business to suggest they are ready to arrest the recent decline in their Premier League performances. Giovanni Lo Celso and Tanguy Ndombele are ideal signings to reinforce their midfield, while Ryan Sessengon will prove in time to be a great addition at left-back.

Spurs’ issue is how long it will take for these players to find their groove, and such is the pace City and Liverpool are likely to set, the title may be gone before they find their best form.

If Spurs aren’t quite good enough to split the top two, they should be too good to get sucked into a battle for fourth place with the three falling empires of the last decade.

Arsenal look the most likely to win that battle. Adding Nicolas Pepe gives them as much firepower as anyone else in the division, and they have finally paid some attention to that clown-car defence.

The signing of David Luiz and the return of Rob Holding means Shkodran Mustafi may not be seen every week – a good thing – while Kieran Tierney is one of the best signings of the summer.

Chelsea and Manchester United, meanwhile, intrigue, given their coaches would struggle to get a job at any other club in the league.

Some will say Frank Lampard is taking the Chelsea job at a bad time, but a transfer ban means for once the club is governed with a reasonable sense of perspective and so he won’t be hauled over hot coals for failing to deliver Champions League qualification for a side lacking the quality to achieve it.

As for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he has finally strengthened his defence with the signing of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka but, given United’s famous wealth, he has been oddly under-resourced.

Solskjaer has now lost Lukaku, Fellaini, and Herrera this year without being given any true replacements. He can only hope to cling on to Pogba before the Spanish transfer window closes in September. 

That David de Gea rediscovers the form that left him at the end of last season is more important than ever.  United do not have enough quality in midfield to keep the ball – their best player, Pogba, gives it away as often as he keeps it – and with the pace of Martial and Rashford, they will be tempted to play on the counter-attack when possible.

It means the template for a lot of their big games this year could be the Wembley win against Spurs earlier this year, in which a Rashford goal on the counter-attack was protected by 11 De Gea saves.

Imago 20190803 Frank Lampard: still smiling. Source: Imago/PA Images

“You are allowed to have a good goalkeeper”, said Solskjaer after. He needs that to happen this season to push for the top four. Otherwise, the berserk noise around the club will close in around his ears and make life very uncomfortable indeed. 

This season will also see the Premier League’s excuse for a winter break – there will be five games staged each weekend across a two-week period, giving each side a week off. So even when the football isn’t on…it’s on.

VAR will also be introduced this season, with the Premier League saying that referees only had to review incidents on the adjacent screen an average of once every five games during its trial period.

It will feel like a lot more in the early weeks of the season, given the level of scrutiny and media commentary it will attract.

Tonight the madness starts afresh and we ask: can anyone really stop Manchester City?  This writer suggests not.   

Premier League fixtures (kick-off 3pm unless stated)

Friday

Liverpool v Norwich (8pm) 

Saturday 

West Ham v Man City (12.30pm) 

Crystal Palace v Everton

Burnley v Southampton

Watford v Brighton

Bournemouth v Sheffield United 

Spurs v Aston Villa (5.30pm)

Sunday 

Leicester v Wolves (2pm) 

Newcastle v Arsenal (2pm) 

Man United v Chelsea (4pm)

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About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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