“We are not going to do crazy stuff but it makes sense for us to build a dynasty.” Those were the words of Khaldoon al-Mubarak on the day he was installed as Manchester City club chairman. It was September 2008 – almost a decade ago – and the takeover had been formalised, the billions of Sheikh Mansour were about to sweep into North West England. Nothing was going to be the same. However, it is only now that the dynasty Al-Mubarak spoke of is beginning to emerge.
The process has been iterative – Robinho was the club's first major signing and Mark Hughes was the manager – but last season the blocks fell into place. After such a jaw-dropping procession to their third title in seven seasons, it seems that the first stage of City’s project is complete.
Last season was special but can it be bettered?
Pep Guardiola has brought a standard of football unparalled in the Premier League era – even Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal of the early 2000s cannot claim to have played such an exquisite consistent style – and records were sent tumbling in the process. Guardiola’s first season in English football still featured questions surrounding his ‘approach’.
Last term, he answered them emphatically.
A gap of 19 points to their closest challenges in the league, a points total of 100, over a century of goals scored and less than 30 conceded, first-placed from matchday five, a Carabao Cup triumph and a Champions League quarter-final.
The numbers speak for themselves, but it was the quality with which they achieved that was so encapsulating. Even the staunchest advocate of Financial Fair Play and the most cynical of football fans could not begrudge the fact that City were sublime.
There are improvements, however. The Champions League being the most obvious. But in many ways retention of the Premier League represents the biggest of tests and one that City have tried and failed twice before. This period is different though, as Guardiola will instill the hunger that the club needs. There continues to be a search for greater perfection.
So how does one improve the side that seemingly has everything? This has been a summer of relatively minor tweaks, and City will essentially go with the squad that was expensively assembled to Guardiola’s satisfaction last season.
The exception is Riyad Mahrez, who had been sought in January but arrived from Leicester City for £60m in July. Mahrez, the best creative player outside last season’s top six, does not obviously replace anyone in the starting XI – he is a squad player – but his versatility will prove as useful as his flair.
Raheem Sterling could well be deployed in the middle and consequently Mahrez plays on the right. Bernardo Silva – whose excellent Community Shield performance suggests much more should be expected this time around after a patchy first year – could even play in the No 10 role.
City become more flexible and harder to second-guess by bringing in Mahrez, let alone stronger in terms of depth. One position that has not been given additional resources is central midfield and, with the impending phasing-out of Fernandinho, the foiled pursuit of Jorginho could prove costly. There may well be an opportunity for an academy product to step up and make a name for himself – Phil Foden being the most obvious.
Team ethic must shine through again
Backing up last season’s title with another, even if few expect another 19-point margin, rests with the team. City showed last season that they are exactly that and will need to again this. Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus will score freely, Kevin De Bruyne and Leroy Sane will electrify and captivate, John Stones and Aymeric Laporte will continue to mature at the back.
There is no key player for City. Some may point at De Bruyne or David Silva, or even the evergreen Aguero but Guardiola harnesses a fully functioning organism that works as one whilst relying on the individual skills of its constituent parts.
So what this season?
Retaining the Premier League and beginning on the journey of becoming a multiple title winning team, or threading in youth products from the academy are all well-respected aims. But the owners’ burning ambition remains Europe, and conquering it.
A first Champions League win would crown everything City have achieved so far and an improvement on last season’s rather deflating quarter-final exit against Liverpool, as a minimum, appears obligatory. Guardiola, himself, could do with scratching the itch: seven years have passed since the second, and most recent, of his successes in the competition.
City appeared the best of the bunch until they came up against Liverpool, it is not unreasonable to believe that they would have outplayed any of their overseas rivals among a somewhat underwhelming field. It showed again how much luck can play in cup competitions.
There are slight questions concerning Liverpool’s approach in that quarter-final, and in fact the league meeting in January, and whether more sides could adopt that intense, aggressive assault this season. The answer for most is no; it appears at face value that City’s biggest challenger is indeed themselves.
Only once has Guardiola not backed up title win with another at the same team club City’s aim is that he will not have to feel the associated sense of emptiness like he did on that single occasion. 10 years ago Al-Mubarek hinted at a dynasty and fun; the fun has already arrived and the dynasty might be on its way.