At the start of the season not many expected Manchester City and Manchester United to be outside of the top four after 21 Premier League matches. But here we are and here they are in fifth and sixth position respectively.
It was a new dawn for both Manchester clubs in the summer.
“Out with the old and in with the new” was seemingly the motto. Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola replaced Louis Van Gaal and Manuel Pellegrini and the new managers spent a combined £320million in order to try to wrestle the Premier League crown away from *cough* Leicester City *cough*.
Many believed that, even with the world’s most expensive player to call upon, Mourinho had the harder task of the two managers. There was plenty of evidence to back that claim up too.
United spent £89million on Paul Pogba as a marketing statement. They didn’t need him. They just wanted him. The squad needed upgrading in other areas such as full-back, centre-back and probably in attacking wide areas too but those requirements fell by the wayside as their pursuit of Pogba took centre stage.
Initially the concerns of those who thought the overall squad had been neglected looked to be valid. It was a subject discussed on episode six of Football Whispers TV.
In the first 10 games of the season United lost to neighbours Manchester City, Feyenoord and Watford as well as picking up just a point at home to Stoke City. They were then emphatically beaten 4-0 by Chelsea towards the end of October and any hopes of a title challenge looked to be in tatters.
The Red Devils had trouble putting the ball in the back of the net, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan appeared to be getting phased out and the famed Mourinho defence was nowhere to be seen. There was even talk that the former Real Madrid manager would be removed from the Old Trafford hot-seat before the season had come to a conclusion.
Those thoughts now seem like a distant memory. United are currently on a 16-match undefeated streak which has seen them score 35 goals and concede just nine. Ibrahimovic is firing, Martial looks to be back on track, Mkhitaryan is close to his brilliant Borussia Dortmund best and, Liverpool performance aside, Pogba has just oozes class.
They’re now only four points behind Arsenal who sit in fourth position and five points off of Tottenham Hotspur in second. They’ve clawed their way back into contention and perhaps given a preview to onlookers with regards to just how good they can be under Mourinho moving forward.
However, even if they miss out on Champions League football this year, it’s hard to see that having much of an impact on them. They’ve shown they can attract top talent even without the incentive of playing in Europe’s elite club competition. There’s a clear style in place under Mourinho and a clear direction for the club to move towards. Their status as one of Europe’s most prestigious clubs isn’t in any danger.
United are in no bubble but can the same be said for Manchester City?
Unlike his Manchester United counterpart, Guardiola’s impact was immediate and he oversaw 10 consecutive victories in his first 10 games in charge. It looked as though City would win the Premier League at a canter.
It came as a surprise as many people, Guardiola included, were thinking there would be a bedding in period. “I have said that the beginning will be tough, so to create something new you need time,” the Catalan tactician said. “Some players get it immediately and the other ones never.
“We’re far away from who we want to be, but that is normal. People cannot imagine how difficult it is to try to play with new ideas.”
It looked as though Guardiola had struck gold. Despite being an ageing squad, the players had managed to understand and embrace what the former Barcelona man wanted, expected and needed from them. The team looked utterly dominant.
But then it all came to an abrupt stop. City went six games without a win and started to concede an alarming amount of goals. They recovered to win four of the next six games but since then their form has been patchy. Losses to Chelsea, Leicester City, Liverpool and Everton, in which they conceded 12 goals and scored just three, have shown how far away this team is from being Pep-ready.
The squad now looks old in some areas and inexperienced in others. It’s not a good mix, especially when you consider this is the most competitive the Premier League has been for a long time with six teams vying for just the four positions.
The wheels haven’t come off but the City project isn’t looking as exciting as it was once. There are question marks over the long-term future of Sergio Aguero with nobody being certain whether he’s a Guardiola striker or not. The Citizens are actively in the market for full-backs as well as a centre-back and potentially a new goalkeeper. The midfield doesn’t look in much better shape with Yaya Toure and Fernando expected to move on.
There may well be yet another transitional season for City fans to endure next term, with a high turnover of players meaning inconsistency should be expected and frustration should be managed. Guardiola isn’t in an enviable position. Keeping the team competitive after a complete squad overhaul?
This job at the Etihad could well be one of the hardest in world football right now.