Premier League 2018-19: Can Manchester City be even better next season?
Liverpool pushed Manchester City all the way in a captivating Premier League battle but Pep Guardiola's men arguably have room to improve.
Manchester City became the first team to retain the Premier League title in a decade, backing up their 100-point season last time around with a similarly remarkable haul of 98.
They were pushed all the way by an irrepressible Liverpool side this time around, however, pipping Jurgen Klopp's men by a point thanks to Sunday's 4-1 win at Brighton and Hove Albion.
While a sense of exasperation has been easy to find at Anfield - what more could Liverpool have done? – City still appear to have room for improvement after passing a challenging campaign with flying colours domestically, an unprecedented treble two-thirds complete.
However, Europe remains the final frontier for Guardiola's City and a captivating recasting of English football's traditional Manchester-Merseyside rivalry does not look like going anywhere soon.
Here, we examine five factors that will be key to City taking another step forward in 2019-20.
A fully fit Kevin De Bruyne
Perhaps the most impressive element of City following up last season so emphatically was them doing so for the most part without their most influential player of 2017-18. A pair of medial ligament injuries decimated the first half of Kevin De Bruyne's campaign. There were flashes of his best thereafter – most notably a trio of assists during City's thrilling Champions League quarter-final second leg against Tottenham – but two hamstring injuries continued a tale of woe.
Rest, recuperation and an uninterrupted pre-season for a player who helped Belgium to third place at the 2018 World Cup on the back of 52 club games last term is a must.
The next stage of Phil Foden's development
When De Bruyne limped out of City's 1-0 win over Spurs in April, the home midfield was already in the safe hands of 18-year-old Phil Foden, who celebrated his second Premier League start with a decisive first goal. The England Under-21 playmaker remains very young for his position, but what already appears to be a prodigious mastery of it makes impatience in some quarters over his first-team opportunities understandable.
Guardiola is only ever effusive in his praise of Foden, who scored seven goals in 26 appearances in all competitions this term, and has promised more minutes next season. Uncertainty over Ilkay Gundogan's future and David Silva's advancing years could mean 2019-20 is when one of English football's great hopes truly achieves lift-off.
Thank you for all your support this season at the Etihad...one more massive game ahead of us pic.twitter.com/NdIg0Hy9kH— Phil Foden (@PhilFoden) May 7, 2019
Getting Leroy Sane firing on all cylinders again
The raw numbers returned by Germany winger Sane speak of a very productive campaign, with 10 Premier League goals and as many assists. However, there are question marks over the lavishly gifted attacker, who has lost his place as a first-choice starter during the run-in – Guardiola preferring Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva to provide the wide support to Sergio Aguero in his front three.
The England and Portugal stars have been truly exceptional this season, but there are uncomfortable echoes of Sane's surprise axing from Germany's World Cup squad. His capacity to illuminate the big occasions is beyond doubt, as demonstrated by pivotal goals against Liverpool and Manchester United. However, Sane followed derby-day heroics from the bench with an underwhelming start at Burnley and an error-strewn cameo versus Leicester City. As a new contract remains unsigned and City are linked to Benfica wonderkid Joao Felix, it is clear there is work to be done.
Landing primary transfer targets
If you count Frenkie de Jong signing a pre-contract agreement with Barcelona last January, City have missed out on their main target in each of the past three transfer windows. Whether the respective fortunes of Jorginho and Alexis Sanchez at Chelsea and Manchester United respectively make that a blessing in disguise is a moot point, but Guardiola would be entitled to be a little frustrated with his great friend and City's director of football Txiki Begiristain.
The only major arrival for this season, record signing Riyad Mahrez, has underwhelmed significantly and this has been a title triumph rooted in a talented squad deepening their understanding and execution of Guardiola's complex instructions. Liverpool have still taken chunks out of the gap that existed and all eyes will be on reported transfer priorities, most notably Atletico Madrid's Rodri, who would serve as a much-needed heir to Fernandinho.
Off-field investigations reaching a satisfactory conclusion
Another factor likely to sharpen City's focus in the market this close-season is the still-looming prospect of a transfer ban. FIFA, UEFA, the Premier League and the Football Association (FA) are all investigating elements of the club's financial operations following allegations made by German magazine Der Spiegel, which were based on documents purportedly obtained by whistleblowers Football Leaks.
City welcomed the opening of UEFA's formal investigation into claims they insist are "entirely false". For Guardiola and his exceptional team, it feels important that due process is seen to be served, whatever the outcome. The City manager seems keenly aware of his place in football history and will want his side's impressive feats to sit in the books unsullied.