Premier League: What do Man City need to do to regain title?
Manchester City's dreams of three in a row bit the dust a long time ago as Liverpool romped to the 2019/20 title. How can they hit back?
From around the turn of the year, Manchester City were merely reigning Premier League champions. Any meaningful title defence ended a long time ago.
After amassing an astounding 198 points over the course of consecutive championship-winning campaigns, Pep Guardiola's men were unable to summon an adequate response in the face of Liverpool's relentless onslaught.
City's 2-1 defeat to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last week completed the formalities, meaning Guardiola's plans over how to wrest back control should already be well underway.
Ahead of Liverpool's trip to City on Thursday, we look at the areas where he and the Etihad Stadium's brain trust should be focusing their attention.
ADDRESS OBVIOUS GAPS IN THE SQUAD
Guardiola's suggestion at the end of last week that he might not seek a like-for-like replacement for Leroy Sané if the Germany winger completes his long-mooted switch to Bayern Munich understandably caused consternation among City fans. Vincent Kompany's influence and aura were irreplaceable when he called time on his career in Manchester in May 2019, but a new centre-back would certainly have come in handy.
The cruciate knee ligament injury that decimated Aymeric Laporte's campaign left Fernandinho simultaneously learning a new position and standing in as City's most reliable option in central defence, as Nicolás Otamendi and John Stones laboured. A high-quality partner for Laporte must be the number one transfer market priority.
A natural left-winger is also needed. Sané has been another long-term injury victim this term and, without that option, City's attacks have sometimes become narrow and predictable. On the subject of cruciate knee ligament injuries, Benjamin Mendy looks to have put a nightmarish two years behind him, although he endured a game to forget against Chelsea. It would be foolish to count on the France international's fitness holding for long and links to England left-back Ben Chilwell are understandable.
RECHARGE AND REPLENISH STAR MEN
The three positions above are likely to be the limit of City's ambitions in an uncertain market, with the depth of coronavirus' impact upon football finances yet to be fully realised. Whether or not the Court of Arbitration (CAS) for sport overturns or reduces their two-season Champions League ban must also be factored into any plans.
The good thing for Guardiola is the fact that plenty of room for improvement lies within. Aside from the imperious Kevin De Bruyne and the ever-prolific Sergio Agüero, it is hard to identify a senior City player who can be wholly satisfied with their efforts this term. Ederson's three errors leading to a goal are second only to Newcastle United goalkeeper Martin Dubravka (five) in the division, while Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling have at times appeared burned out following the exertions of a triumphant 2018/19.
UNLEASH PHIL FODEN
David Silva's departure at the end of this season was expected to usher in Phil Foden to blossom as the master's apprentice. This has been muddied slightly by the England Under-21 star's best performances coming in a wide attacking role, most notably his man-of-the-match outing in the EFL Cup final and his two-goal showing in the recent 5-0 demolition of Burnley. He was badly missed at Chelsea.
Guardiola loves players who are adept in a number of roles and Foden has thrived regardless of what his brief is on any given stage. The academy product has long looked a player at home in this City team; he now seems like one who could significantly elevate it. It is time to let him fly.
REMAIN BANNED FROM THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
From having to scale down more ambitious transfer targets to tackling some awkward conversations with star players over their immediate futures, the seismic blow of City's exclusion from the Champions League holding firm should not be underplayed. However, if we are looking at this purely in terms of their chances of winning a third Premier League title in four seasons, a coach of Guardiola's calibre getting free midweeks to hone his side to his version of perfection is something of which Liverpool and others would be right to be wary.
DON'T ACTUALLY CHANGE TOO MUCH
Under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, City compiled deplorably meek title defences. The clear daylight between themselves and Liverpool this time around makes it tempting to lump their 2019/20 efforts in with those other failures. But there is an important wider context. The Manchester United and Chelsea sides that unseated Mancini and Pellegrini were not a patch on Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool machine. This City had won six of the previous seven domestic honours on offer and could conceivably finish 2019/20 with the FA Cup and that elusive Champions League nestled alongside the EFL Cup in the trophy cabinet.
Also, it is not a slight on the Reds' brilliance to note most things that could have fallen in their favour this season have. That is inevitable. City sealed their 100-point season with a last-minute winner at Southampton, having beaten Saints, Bournemouth, West Ham and Huddersfield Town in similar fashion before the turn of the year. Mind-boggling deeds require a certain level of fortune.
Heading into their game at Chelsea, City were still ahead of Liverpool by five points with a game in hand in Opta's Expected Goals league table (Yes, yes… when's the parade?!?!). Liverpool's brutally clinical efforts are to be admired, but the underlying numbers suggest such a gulf will not become the norm.