“A masterpiece” is how Pep Guardiola described 23-year-old playmaker Bernardo Silva’s performance in their 2-0 win over Chelsea in the Community Shield. He went on, saying that in terms of competition for starting positions, it’s Silva and “ten more”. The Portuguese midfielder moved to City last summer from Monaco for some $57 million but was quickly overshadowed by David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in the creative midfield role despite making 35 league appearances. Although, based on his current form, this could not only be the year of Silva, but a breakout season could also represent the future of Manchester City’s attack.
Silva’s development as a creator is one way that Guardiola’s side could improve upon last year’s title winning run. Manchester City set at least 11 records last season, including most points in a season, largest title winning margin, most goals, most wins, and highest average possession. In their dominance, Guardiola emphatically answered whether his passing style would work in the physicality of the Premier League. His challenge now is how to follow up a record breaking season where nothing less than another historic campaign would be a letdown even if he wins another league title as expected.
In addition to trophies, there is also an expectation of Guardiola innovating tactically and being at the forefront of the modern game. Last season’s breakthrough came in moving center midfielder Fabian Delph to left back, thereby retaining the athleticism needed to defend wide attackers while reinforcing City’s midfield structure. But one would expect these vast overhauls to slow down eventually as players age and settle into determined roles. And how much can one manager innovate within their time at a club? There is a comparison to Silicon Valley’s S-curve model in which once forward thinking ideas become commodities over time. Guardiola already had his “Eureka” moment, especially in neutralizing the second ball. In lieu of tactical growth, this upcoming season looks to be one of refinement from last season’s principles.
Of course, there are new signings. Riyad Mahrez was signed from Leicester City for $80 million to add another creative dribbler somewhere on the field (he said he has no idea where Guardiola plans to play him). And, like Silva, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, and Gabriel Jesus are in their early 20’s and will continue to improve. Left back Benjamin Mendy, whose injury forced Guardiola to innovate with Delph, offers a natural left back giving City directness and pace on the wing. 18 year old center midfielder Claudio Gomes could add a dynamism through the middle of the field in possession. So perhaps this season is about adding small nuances to the foundation from 2017.
Similar to other dominant league champions like Juventus and Bayern Munich, their obsession and attention could move to the European stage. City lost to Liverpool in the quarterfinals last season as Jurgen Klopp’s side were the only team they struggled against from a stylistic point of view. They’ve only made it past the quarterfinal stage one time in the last six years. Likewise, Guardiola underachieved in the competition with Bayern relative to his league dominance. Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane famously said that his style “doesn’t work in the playoffs” with its high variance. City’s controlling play may be tailored to dominate over 38 matches as opposed to matches decided over a home and away leg. But with problems comes the innovative solutions.
City’s foundation is built for the long-term. Guardiola had always been linked to the club since Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain moved from Barcelona in 2012. And relative to Barcelona and Bayern, there is little outside pressure either from fans who own shares in the team (Victor Valdes famously said that one year at Barcelona is the equivalent of two years at any other club) or a caustic boardroom (Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Uli Hoeness never shied from a controversial statement). Guardiola, who previously stated that a manager’s shelf life with a locker room lasts three or four seasons, signed a two-year extension this summer.
Chelsea previously held the record of most points in a season with 95 during their 2004-05 campaign. After adding Michael Essien and Shaun Wright-Phillips over the summer, they again repeated as champions with 91 points. That scenario is likely for City this season. After signing his extension, Guardiola expressed his excitement in working with a squad with an average age of 23 years old as they mature into their prime together. Through Silva, Mahrez, and an ever-evolving manager, there is little to stop Manchester City from winning the league next season as well.