There is an air of confidence flowing through Manchester at the moment, as both City and United fans feel a sense of revitalisation for their respective football teams. Both the Citizens and the Red Devils go into the third round of Premier League fixtures with a 100% record to their names, and the clash at Old Trafford on September 10th is already being spoken of as pivotal in the eventual outcome of the title race.
Optimism therefore is well justified. Both sides have managers in Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho who have rightful claims to be the best in the business right now; both have invested heavily in areas of the side that have lacked in past campaigns, most notably the Old Trafford outfit, who have broken the world transfer record in buying Paul Pogba, and not least of all, both are playing the style of football desired from demanding sets of supporters.
The season however is a long one, and teams have started brightly in campaigns gone by before fading before the finish line. One only has to look back 12 months, when Manchester City won their opening five games without conceding a goal – a better start then their new Spanish manager could possibly hope for.
Let’s start with Manchester United though, seemingly the most improved side in the division right now. In Zlatan Ibrahimovic, José Mourinho has found his side a center forward who will scare and intimidate defenders in a way not seen at Old Trafford in recent campaigns. In Paul Pogba, they have a man who on his day could possibly be the difference between a Champions League finish and a trophy-laden campaign. In Eric Bailly, the defence has a player who will win admirers for his raw pace and ability in the challenge, and seems up for the challenge of taking on the very best. Henrikh Mkhitaryan remains the joker in the pack, as Mourinho is yet to unleash him from the start of a game; reports from Germany, and flashes we have seen so far though, indicate that the Stretford End will have a player to cheer who is able to unlock the tightest of opposition with incisive passing and movement.
These four all offer something that has been missing since the day Sir Alex Ferguson hung up his managerial jacket, and if truth be told possibly further back then that. Not least of all, as has been highlighted by Rio Ferdinand this week, they offer a certain fear factor within the United ranks, a sense that they are no longer here to be bullied around. In highlighting these four potential game changers at Old Trafford though, one can see a potential flaw to the plan: they are all new signings, and still new to the Premier League (not considering the small amount of substitute appearances racked up by a young Paul Pogba).
The Premier League is full of big name players who have failed to cut the mustard throughout an arduous campaign. Whilst there is little doubt Paul Pogba is ideally suited to the unique conditions of England’s top fight, the other signings all come with doubts lingering over their heads. Ibrahimovic is a world superstar. Any player who has had his own slogan (#daretozlatan) will believe he can light up any football arena, but the truth is that the Swede has struggled when up against English opposition, scoring just six goals in 22 appearances, and being largely invisible throughout. In fact, prior to that game against England, you would be hard-pressed to find an admirer this side of the Channel. Combined with this, he is now well into his 30’s, and though his body remains in peak physical condition, will he be able to cut it week-in, week-out in a league that far outweighs the competitiveness of Ligue 1? By scoring in each of his opening three games on English soil, the man who has won titles at each club he has been at, has begun to prove the critics wrong, but there is still along way to go to justify the hype being shown. It is my opinion he will last the course, and prove an inspiration to the likes of Marcus Rashford et al, but this is no guarantee.
The surprise signing of the summer then was Eric Bailly, plucked from a Villarreal defence that inspired the Yellow Submarines to the recent Champions League playoffs round, for a hefty £30m price tag. Not a lot was known about the Ivory Coast international as he posed alongside Jose Mourinho, but YouTube experts were quick to claim the Red Devils had acquired a highly talented center-back, who had the speed and power to match any forward line. Early indications suggest this is not too far off the truth, as he has two MOM performances to his name already, and has won the affection of the United crowd thanks to his all action approach to the game. Bailly is young however, and Mourinho will be quick to urge patience from all involved, as he is certain to have a dip in form at some point. Bailly will also be off to the African Cup of Nations in the New Year, presenting a problem not experienced by United in recent times, though Mourinho has past experience of navigating a title winning sides without the likes of Didier Drogba for sustained periods. As things stand, many are claiming him to be the savior of a weak back line, though the fans will be wise not to pin the hopes of title winning campaign on an unproven youngster in the Premier League.
The unknown quantity in English Football then remains the Premier League’s first Armenian player, Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Arriving on the back of a Bundesliga campaign where he took home the player of the season award, largely thanks to double figures in both the goals and assists columns, the attacking midfield players comes with quite a reputation. For some Red Devils supporters however this CV seems all too familiar, and their last signing from Borussia Dortmund, Shinji Kagawa, never truly looked at home in the Premier League, as Sir Alex Ferguson struggled to find any suitable role to play him in. The natural pessimists within the fanbase then are beginning to fear the worst, as the player is yet to feature from the start, and has even been given half an hour in any one game to show his abilities. The truth is, Mourinho is probably still assessing the merits of the current number 10, Wayne Rooney, before making his tactical decision on the Armenian; furthermore, ‘Mhiki’ has taken a couple of years to settle at previous clubs, and United fans will have to consider this.
The major question from the majority of the United faithful has been whether Mourinho will continue to accommodate their captain, whom despite being a great player over the years, is beginning to feel the toll of playing 14 years at the very highest level. The big predicament is that play seems to slow down as it reaches the United number ten, and Rooney is not able to consistently provide the pass that will unleash the likes of Martial and Rashford should they be on the field. In Juan Mata, Mourinho possesses a player capable of playing those intricate passes, whilst the hope is that Mkhitaryan will be able to do the same, whilst continuing the fast momentum the team is now capable of. Mourinho though is seemingly set on giving his captain the opportunity to prove his ability in this role, whilst he showed against Bournemouth that he is still a danger in the opposition area. A decision will need to be made at some point, and the red side of Manchester will be hoping it will not be forced following a bad run of results, but rather as and when the manager seems fit.
On the blue side of Manchester, there is a sense of optimism that the Qatari-backed side are about to truly challenge the best in Europe, as Pep Guardiola begins what they hope will be a trophy-laden tenure. Previous work at both Barcelona and Bayern Munich has quite rightly seen the Catalan hailed as a revolutionist in the world of Football.
Manchester City however presents a new challenge for Guardiola, as he looks to impose a style of play seemingly alien to many of his players. Of last years roster, only Kevin De Bruyne, David Silva and Sergio Aguero seem naturally suited to Pep’s vision, though Raheem Sterling has undoubtedly surprised many with his development in the opening fixtures. The biggest challenge facing the City squad is to develop the back-end of the team; that is to say to ensure that they are to attack from the first stage of possession, whether that is with the goalkeeper or the inverted full-backs. It is the duo of Sagna and Clichy in the full-back positions who have had to change their play the most, as they move into a position more readily identified with that of a central midfielder in possession. Whilst early signs have been promising, they are unlikely to develop into the standard set by the Bayern Munich combination of David Alaba and Philippe Lahm, whom are perhaps unique in terms of full-back stylistic values. The problem is then compounded further, as the Catalan coach seeks to find a player capable of dropping deep in midfield and dictating play from that area. To use the Bavarian example again, any one of Thiago Alcantara, Xabi Alonso or Javi Martinez are among the best in world football at performing these roles, capable of a range of passing we don’t often see in England. Fernandinho is getting an early chance, though the mantle will be most likely to be taken by İlkay Gündoğan when he returns from injury in the coming weeks; Gundogan made a name for himself as one of the most exciting midfield prospects in world football within the Borussia Dortmund side that reached the final of the Champions League under Jürgen Klopp, but it is a risk to rely on a player who spent the majority of the last two seasons on the treatment table, and will required to adapt his style of play if he is to perform the Xabi Alonso role in this side.
The majority of attention in the opening stages of the season have undoubtedly been focused on the treatment of long-time number one Joe Hart, who Pep, quite rightly to many, has decided is not good enough with the ball at his feet to be the start of an attacking phase. Coming in then is Claudio Bravo, who has made a name for himself at Barcelona having made the big move as a relatively late developer. There is little doubt that the keeper is able to perform as Guardiola requires; starting out as an attacking player at Chilean side Colo Colo, the Chilean keeper had an a pass success rate of 82%, considerably higher then the 52% achieved by Hart, and even higher then that of Manuel Neuer, who achieved 80%. Questions will be asked however of his ability underneath the high ball, as the keeper stands out just above six feet tall. Whist this has not been such an issue in the possession based game of La Liga, the more physical sides in the Premier League will be quick to ask the question of the recently acquired stopper. City fans should be confident though, as the keeper will more then match the shot-stopping ability of former custodian Joe Hart, whilst he will also be protected by a side that will not allow many crosses into the box.
The center of defence in front of Bravo though still may fall short of the style required by Guardiola. John Stones will surely develop into one of the finest ball-playing defenders in the game, and should provide the calmness in possession not seen in this league since the days of Rio Ferdinand. It is a lot to ask of him however to instantaneously become this player following his record breaking transfer from Everton, with the fact that he does not yet have an obvious partner unlikely to dampen potential fears. In Vincent Kompany, City have a defender who when fit would walk into the majority of sides in world football, yet was only able to make 16 first team appearances in the League last season. Nicolás Otamendi is yet to convince anyone he is the answer, though the potential is there, and Eliaquim Mangala has been shipped of to Napoli on loan in an attempt to revive his career. It is no surprise that Guardiola targeted Leonardo Bonucci at Juventus, though it was always a difficult target, especially once it became clear Paul Pogba would be leaving the Italian giants. Whilst Fernando was tried out in this position during pre-season, he is unlikely again to reassure the coaching staff of the safety of their new goalkeeper. When analyzing the central defensive area of this side, it is therefore no surprise that questions will continued to be asked if they will be able to maintain their positive start to the campaign.
In the attacking third of the field, Pep has a vast array of options, spearheaded by Sergio Agüero who remains the most dangerous goalscoring threat within the division. Behind him, a fully fit trio of any of De Bruyne, Silva, Sterling, Nolito or Sané will scare any defence with their combination of pace and technique. Guardiola needs Agüero to stay fit however, as he is unlikely to trust the promising yet raw potential of Kelechi Iheanacho. Should Agüero fail to last the course, Pep may yet try one of the aforementioned bunch as a false nine, with either one of Raheem Sterling or Leroy Sané the more likely candidates. Whist Agüero played in in the majority of games last season, making 44 appearances, Pep should realize he can’t rely solely on the Argentine, and will be aware that his backup options may well struggle to break down the physical defenders currently residing in the Premier League.
So while it makes sense for these two sides to compete for the league title, the likes of Antonio Conte and his Chelsea side may yet have a say in the matter, but to name just one rival.
Both Mourinho and Guardiola know however that their teams are very much works in progress, and would unlikely be at the top of other European leagues as they continue to develop. An air of caution therefore should remain, as if there is one thing that can characterise the Premier League, it is to always expect the unexpected; remember City last season.