Spoiler alert: Having successfully predicted that Chelsea would win the title last season, this year’s yet-to-be-published F365 predictions will feature me tipping Manchester City.
Caveat: I am having trouble convincing myself.
This description of the XI for City’s 3-0 win over West Ham on Friday on the club’s official website neatly sums up the doubts:
‘City again began with a back three of Vincent Kompany, John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi, with Danilo on the right and Leroy Sane on the left providing width ahead of them. Yaya Toure anchored the midfield, allowing David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne freedom to create in behind Aguero and Jesus up top.’
One name sticks out like the sorest of thumbs adorned by the kind of blue plaster beloved of school cooks. How, after almost £400m of spending over two summers, are City still starting a season as title favourites with the 34-year-old Yaya Toure in central midfield? How, when Pep Guardiola has talked passionately about lowering the age of the squad, are City still starting a season as title favourites with the 32-year-old Fernandinho as the only real back-up to the 34-year-old Yaya Toure?
Guardiola said only this weekend: “We decided last season we could change the team to make the team younger for the next four or five years – Danilo is 26, Mendy is 23, Bernardo is 22, Ederson is 23 – so we bought players who are able to be stable for the next years.”
And yet his only two defensive midfield options going into this weekend’s opener against Brighton have a combined age of 66. Presumably the player earmarked for the ‘stable for the next years’ role is the 26-year-old Ilkay Gundogan, whose injury record does not exactly scream stability; he is yet to play 30 league games in any one campaign and this season already looks unlikely to buck that trend. City’s defensive midfield options are two old men and a crock.
Of course, you could argue that City will not need a holding midfielder against Brighton – particularly if Guardiola persists with a three-man defence that means City are less vulnerable in central areas – but watching first Toure and then Fernandinho try and fail to stem the tide against Monaco suggested that the priorities for a summer before another assault on silverware would be a) younger full-backs and b) younger central midfielders.
Five months later, City have spent around £200m on three younger full-backs, a younger goalkeeper and one of the young attacking midfielders who tormented them. And yet the revolution has ground to a halt in central midfield.
It is baffling. If you are going to be the coach of one of the richest clubs in world football and you are going to accept, nay embrace, your status as a chequebook manager, why would you not solve one of the squad’s most glaring problems? His hands are clearly not tied; on the contrary, they are full of cash.
There were some lazy links with Fabinho earlier in the summer but barely even a whisper since. Does Guardiola have a plan he has not even tried out in pre-season? Is he eyeing John Stones or Danilo for that role? In the absence of a homegrown Sergio Busquets, is he busy converting a Philipp Lahm away from our gaze?
Manchester United conceded just 29 goals last season and responded by buying a defensive midfielder and a centre-half. Chelsea won the Premier League title, conceded just 33 goals last season and responded by buying a defensive midfielder and a centre-half. Manchester City conceded 39 goals last season and have responded by buying no defensive midfielders and no centre-halves. Guardiola clearly has a different philosophy to either Jose Mourinho or Antonio Conte, but he surely does not believe that he has enough options in either position?
I am still tentatively writing ‘Manchester City’ next to the word ‘Winners’ on my predictions, but my finger would not be hovering over the delete button if Guardiola had fully embraced his cash-rich status and made a ludicrous offer for Marco Verratti. After all, if you are going to buy the title, you need to take out insurance.