Guardiola, Manchester City face tough task to repeat as Premier League champs

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola sits on a football to watch the training session at New York City CFA on July 23, 2018 in New York, New York. (Photo by Matt McNulty - Manchester City/Man City via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JULY 23: Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola sits on a football to watch the training session at New York City CFA on July 23, 2018 in New York, New York. (Photo by Matt McNulty - Manchester City/Man City via Getty Images) /

Manchester City will look to repeat as Premier League champions, a task that has eluded many past winners.

Winning back-to-back Premier League titles is nearly impossible. The season is longer, roster turnover is more significant and luck runs out. Ask Arsene Wenger, or Claudio Ranieri, or Roberto Mancini, or any Chelsea manager of the past decade, how difficult it is to repeat in the Premier League. Only Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho have ever accomplished the feat.

If anyone can join the club, though, it’s Pep Guardiola. This coming season will be his third at Manchester City, two years after a disappointing third-place finish and a year after cruising to a Premier League trophy with a roster that will mostly carry over into 2018-19. Guardiola will embark on a title defense unlike any he’s taken on in the past.

The Spanish manager, famous for his tactical precision and dedication to possession, has managed 10 seasons at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester City. He hasn’t won a league title in just two of those seasons, in which he finished second (2011-12 at Barca) and third (2016-17 at City).

But the Premier League is a different animal. Its parity at the top makes it difficult to sustain top-of-the-table success. Whereas Barcelona only had two legitimate contenders for the title to compete with (Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid) and Bayern essentially had none, the Premier League presents five additional “big” teams with the funds to go far in the Champions League.

City made a joke of that parity last season. They finished with 100 points, 19 ahead of second-place Manchester United, and a plus-79 goal difference; the next best goal difference in the league belonged to Liverpool, on plus-46. City scored way more goals than anyone else in addition to keeping the best defensive record in the league. They had essentially wrapped up the trophy by Christmas.

Every major contributor will return. Leading scorer Sergio Aguero will lead the attack alongside Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling, and Kevin De Bruyne (arguably the Premier League’s best player) will continue being the ideal Guardiola midfielder. Riyad Mahrez, after missing out on a move to the Etihad in January, will bolster the attacking ranks. World Cup-caliber defenders John Stones and Kyle Walker anchor the back line.

Contrast the squad with the rapidly-improving Liverpool, whose Jurgen Klopp-led gegenpress system was City’s kryptonite last year, Manchester United, many of whose players seem to have suffered under Mourinho’s restrictive style (see: Paul Pogba at the World Cup), Tottenham, who haven’t improved much, and Arsenal, who aren’t nearly at the level of their counterparts, and the Citizens look talented enough to repeat.

That doesn’t mean Klopp’s Reds won’t rampage their way to a Premier League title on the backs of their young and fun attacking core. Or that Chelsea won’t stick their noses in the conversation with Maurizio Sarri replacing Antonio Conte as manager. Or even that some new team (Fulham, anyone?) will burst onto the scene.

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Repeating is simply that hard. Many of City’s players are also coming off long World Cups, and whether their tournament was long because their team made a deep run (as was the case for De Bruyne, Stones, Vincent Kompany, Walker, Sterling and others) or simply in terms of mentally-draining craziness — Aguero, Nicolas Otamendi, David Silva, Jesus — the fear of a World Cup hangover is legitimate.

After last year’s Champions League disappointment, Guardiola could put a lot more eggs in that basket. They got whacked by Liverpool in the quarters last season, bringing back speculation Guardiola can out-think himself in big games. The Champions League will be deeper than ever this year. Going hard for the European trophy, and potentially sacrificing league results in the process, will almost certainly be a feature of this season.

On the field, there will be concerns  Guardiola’s system could run stale. It rarely has in the past, and the team seem too talented to let that happen, but when you dominate as thoroughly as City did last year, clubs will try hard to figure you out. At some point, someone will find a chink in the armor.

And so with the knowledge of the past firmly in the back of their minds, City go for it again. They have the look of the rare all-time team that steals two straight Premier League titles. In Guardiola they trust.