Tuesday 26 September 2017

'Transferball' puts pressure on Pep to deliver

Guardiola’s £200m surgery to squad makes City worthy title favourites

Pep Guardiola has bought players to get City doing things his way. Photo: Getty Images
Pep Guardiola has bought players to get City doing things his way. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Hayward

As one Gulf state (Qatar) celebrates the capture of Neymar from Barcelona to play in France, another (Abu Dhabi) lumps its bets on the conquest of English football by Pep Guardiola - an even bigger Nou Camp idol.

If the battle of Manchester failed to develop in 2016-'17, there are new reasons to think Manchester City will beat United to the Premier League title and dominate the municipality.

If last season presented a case for English football to be re-named Managerball, with big names and personalities leading the top clubs, this campaign begins as Transferball, as fees hurtle into a stratosphere fans have ceased to recognise as any kind of reflection of society, which football used to be.

But since no player is forced to play with a price tag swinging from his neck, attention will soon turn to the quality of the contenders, intense jostling for the top-six places and the pressure on Guardiola, especially, to deliver on City's grand idea.

Third in the Premier League, FA Cup semi-finalists, fourth round of the League Cup, last 16 of the Champions League. On the face of it, City's record in Guardiola's first season in charge hardly supports the belief that they will sweep through English football this time round.

The idea, though, is that City had the wrong players to enact the right idea. Too many old full-backs, too few dependable centre-backs, no reliable goalkeeper.

So, out went the ageing full-backs (Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Aleksandar Kolarov) and in came more than £200m of players who fit the Guardiola template of thrusting wide defenders, midfield artistry and attacking pace.

Circulation

Underpinning it all is ball retention, ball circulation. To that end, even City's new dressing room is round, like a circle of trust or a ring of seats for an annual meeting of wizards.

Much of the focus has been on the new full-backs, Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy, as well as the new goalkeeper, Ederson Moraes, who stands behind City's only potentially weak area - centre-back, where Guardiola is still looking for reinforcements to buttress John Stones, Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany - a great Premier League defender who is unlikely to suddenly become sound in body.

But the overwhelming strength of City's orchestra is in midfield, where the range of talents looks irresistible. If all are available, Guardiola will somehow have to choose from Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gundogan, who is fit again.

Even allowing for the strength of Real Madrid and Barcelona, City's midfield talent pool is arguably the deepest in Europe, with Bernardo Silva adding more width to the wing play of Sterling and Sane, as well as yet more ingenuity in the No 10 area.

With Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus as strikers, the torment for opposition defences will be unrelenting, provided City's attitude is right.

In the mega-money age, their pattern has been to win the league, then drop away, or display complacency against the smaller clubs. Brilliant, in phases, City have yet to become the dominating force in English football.

Chelsea have been more resilient in that respect. But Guardiola's cull (Nolito and Jesus Navas were others who fell below the required level), and his upgrading of the defence (Danilo is another, versatile acquisition) explain why bookmakers make City clear favourites at 15/8 to take the trophy off Antonio Conte's team.

The Guardiola-Jose Mourinho rivalry was built up frantically this time last year. In the event neither club could reach the top two places, with London in control, in the shape of Chelsea and Spurs, who have been chastised by Danny Rose for the size of their pay packets, and whose move to Wembley deprives them of the powerful White Hart Lane ingredient. In May, Spurs finished with 86 points, were unbeaten at home (17 wins, two draws) and scored the most goals, with the fewest conceded.

Without reinforcements, however, and with Wembley feeling like a showpiece ground rather than a cauldron, 9/1 seems a fair assessment of their chance of moving up to the gold medal position.

Mourinho's first season was more successful than that of Guardiola, in that United won the League Cup and the Europa League, thus returning to Champions League action without having to chase Chelsea and Spurs at home with a squad unbalanced over three seasons of erratic purchasing.

Aghast

All the evidence suggests Mourinho was aghast at the poor quality of his squad and he has rectified that, in part, by adding strength along the spine, from Victor Lindelof (centre-back), Nemanja Matic (defensive midfield) and Romelu Lukaku (striker).

The worst league season of Mourinho's managerial career will have to sprout wings to become a title-winning campaign in his second season at United, but they will be stronger, especially if Paul Pogba progresses - even if Mourinho's tactical, slower style of play is less appealing than the speed of Liverpool, the creativity of City and the Harry Kane-Dele Alli combination at Spurs.

As for Arsenal, the best policy is to expect more of the same until there is hard evidence the ship has finally come in.

Alexandre Lacazette's arrival from Lyon is an upgrade on Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck and Lucas Perez, but no judgment can be made until we know whether Arsene Wenger has managed to hold on to Alexis Sanchez. The same could be said of Liverpool and Philippe Coutinho, their most inventive attacking player, and most likely game-changer.

Chelsea also have an uncertain feel to them, despite making three good signings in Alvaro Morata, Antonio Rudiger and Tiemoue Bakayoko.

If they falter, or fall out, Manchester is ready to capitalise, with City's grand design around Guardiola ready for completion. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Dembele goes 'awol' as Borussia reject €100m Barca bid

Borussia Dortmund have rejected a bid, thought to be in the region of €100m from Barcelona for Ousmane Dembele and suspended the 20-year-old French wonderkid until next week for missing training.

The German club released a statement yesterday confirming that they had turned down the offer because it did not reflect the player's "extraordinary footballing abilities" or the "present economic market".

Dortmund manager Peter Bosz revealed earlier in the day that the striker had not turned up to training, with reports suggesting he had travelled to Spain to complete a move to Barcelona.

Bosz added: "Dembele wasn't there this morning and, if I am completely honest I have to say I have no idea why he wasn't.

"We have tried to reach him but we have not managed to do so. I hope nothing bad has happened to him. He wasn't there."

Telegraph.co.uk

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