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Best Pep Guardiola side yet makes a fifth title in six seasons all the more likely

Jason Burt


Evolving: Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Credit: Getty Images

Evolving: Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Credit: Getty Images

Evolving: Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Credit: Getty Images

There is a certain degree of bemusement at Manchester City over the reaction to the sale of Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus and the theory that it will damage the Premier League champions.

After all, Sterling was told he could leave last summer, with City pushing Tottenham Hotspur to accept him as a makeweight in a proposed deal to sign Harry Kane. The move never happened, but it proved that Sterling’s City career was in its twilight.

And while Jesus has also been lavished with praise by Pep Guardiola, he never quite became the true heir to Sergio Aguero. He was actually bought to take the striker’s place in 2016, one of Guardiola’s first purchases, as the manager quickly grew frustrated with the Argentine’s initial reluctance to follow his tactical instructions.

Similar to Sterling, Jesus was told he could go last summer if he wanted to and Juventus showed interest before being put off by City’s asking price – a sum Arsenal ended up paying.

Both Sterling and Jesus had a year left on their contracts at City and so it made sense for them to leave now. Extracting €118 million for the pair feels like decent enough business, even if they have been sold to title rival Chelsea and Arsenal.

No one doubts that the signings have strengthened the two London clubs. One Premier League manager privately declared this week that he confidently expected Jesus to score 20 league goals for Arsenal, while Sterling’s pedigree – only Aguero has scored more goals under Guardiola at City – is without question.

But City’s strategy has not wavered. Out have gone Sterling (aged 27), Jesus (25) and Fernandinho (37), as planned, and in have come Erling Haaland, Julian Alvarez (both 22) and Kalvin Phillips (26). The club would – not unreasonably – argue that represents a clear upgrade.

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The final part of the summer refresh was to sign a specialist left-back and allow Oleksandr Zinchenko to leave. Although City walked away from their first choice, Marc Cucurella, after Brighton wanted in excess of €60 million and Chelsea stepped in, there are other targets. Even so, Guardiola has told City he can cope even if another player is not signed.

City have spent €116 million and brought in €197 million, with the sale of peripheral, younger players added in. That is a profit of €81 million – remarkable for a top club with such ambitions.

The figures, of course, are skewed because of Haaland’s release clause of €61 million, which is arguably a quarter of his market value.

But it is not just about the personnel or the finances. It is also about the evolution and the effect it has on the dressing-room. It is six years since Guardiola arrived at City and this has been the busiest summer since he joined. It has also been the summer that he has wanted for the past couple of years as he looks to bring in new energy – and youth – to a squad who needed a shake-up.

City thought about it last year but there was not the value in the market or they could not prise away their targets. One deal they could do was trigger the £100 million clause in Jack Grealish’s Aston Villa contract but that was partly because they had been tipped off that if they did not, Manchester United would.

It means we are looking at Pep 3.0 at City.

There is still a core of nine players who have been part of at least three title-winning teams since the 2017-’18 campaign – Kyle Walker, Kevin De Bruyne, John Stones, Ederson, Bernardo Silva, Aymeric Laporte, Ilkay Gundogan, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez – but new arrivals will provide fresh impetus. There is also a new dynamic: the Haaland focus. It is the first time City have signed such a superstar, one who every leading club in world football wanted.

And what of City’s style of play? Guardiola’s retort to that question is simple:

“Why should we change the way we play when we did really quite well in these last seasons?”

No one expects a drastic change, or an alteration of formation, even if it would be strange not to, on occasions, get the ball forward more quickly for Haaland.

Obviously there are legitimate concerns: how quickly will the new players settle and be integrated? Guardiola also delayed the return for pre-season and City have played fewer warm-up games as he examines the demands of this unique season with a World Cup shoehorned into the middle.

City may start slowly, as evidenced by the Community Shield defeat by Liverpool. The reboot is also a show of faith in Foden, who is cemented now as a starter, Mahrez, who has earned a new contract, and Grealish.

Guardiola has faith in Grealish and points to the bravery and threat the forward showed as a substitute albeit in losing last season’s Champions League semi-final to Real Madrid. 

That trophy remains the unfulfilled target as this third coming of Guardiola’s City set their sights on a fifth league title in six campaigns. 

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]

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