CHICAGO — When you build a soccer team as monumental as Manchester City’s, it’s impossible to have all the pieces in place so soon after a World Cup is over. It only has been six days since France defeated Croatia to claim the 2018 world championship, and just a bit longer since more than a dozen of City’s players finished their last games in Russia, so it was inevitable the club would turn up for its first preseason friendly with a depleted roster.
Man City’s starting 11 against Borussia Dortmund included only a single player who could be described as a Premier League veteran, midfielder Riyad Mahrez, and he played those games for Leicester City before his transfer earlier this summer.
Eight of the players were under 21. Five were teenagers. Four have yet to make their first appearance in the Prem. One, forward Jack Harrison, played a majority of his career to date in Major League Soccer, with City affiliate New York City FC.
So maybe it was no surprise Man City lost 1-0 before a crowd of nearly 35,000 at Soldier Field, even though that represented half as many defeats as City experienced in the entire 2017-18 Premier League season.
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“I saw many, many, many good things,” City manager Pep Guardiola told the media afterward. “All the players did very good things. Of course, we prefer to win, but it’s the preseason. We just prepare the team.
“For the future, it will be so good, because we played against one of the best teams in Germany. The courage, the desire to play, we did very well.”
Manchester City was without such stars as Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Fernandinho, and Guardiola insisted it would be ludicrous to drag those players off their brief holidays so soon and put them back on their feet in advance of another 10-month grind.
In their place were a number of players fighting for a position on the senior team but likely to wind up playing again for City’s youth squads. Harrison, who spent part of last season on loan to Middlesbrough, was particularly dangerous playing in an attacking position on the left but wasn’t able to get in position to threaten the goal.
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“I think there were a lot of points Coach was trying to get at, and we ended up succeeding at a lot of those,” Harrison told Sporting News. “The pressing was very good. We made them play long a lot of times today, which was one of the main focuses. That was a good thing for the team. We’ve been working hard on that.”
Guardiola was short enough on players that he had to deploy some out of position, or at less than ideal positions. Oleksandr Zinchenko, a winger, was stationed at left back and was terrorized during the first 45 minutes by Dortmund’s American star, Christian Pulisic. On one of the moves where he undressed Zinchenko, Pulisic was taken down and drew a penalty.
Veteran midfielder Mario Gotze struck that kick boldly down the center, and though City keeper Claudio Bravo got his hand to it, he could not keep it out of the goal.
“We don’t have the players in the first team, just three or four,” Guardiola said. “In general, with the guys we had, I’m satisfied.”
Manchester City’s 2017-18 season wasn’t just one of the great seasons in Premier League history, it was one of the best in world soccer history. City finished with 100 points earned through a 38-match schedule, an average of 2.63 points per game. In Arsenal’s 2003-04 “Invincibles” season, the Gunners did not lose once but drew 12 times and thus gained only 2.37 points per game.
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FC Barcelona hit the 100-point number in its 2012-13 La Liga season, but City’s plus-79 goal differential was superior to Barca’s plus-75. Real Madrid hit 100 points the prior year, and that team indeed managed even a greater goal differential, plus-89.
City won an astonishing 19 of its first 20 games last season and was ruthless in building that record. There were victories of 5-0 over Liverpool, 6-0 over Watford, 7-2 over Stoke and 4-1 over Tottenham Hotspur. They did not lose a match until Liverpool earned a 4-3 win at Anfield in mid-January. By then, no challenger was within 13 points. The title race was over. City never coasted, though. The second defeat didn’t come for nearly three months, at home against rival Manchester United in a game that mattered little while City tried to advance in the Champions League.
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No Premier League team in nearly a decade, however dominant in its championship season, has been able to return the following season and reach the same heights. The average points decline for each champion was 17 points, and only one managed to improve its total over the previous season.
This sort of winner’s ennui is not uncommon, in soccer or any other sport. Four of the past five World Cup champions failed to advance out of the group stage in the following tournament, including Germany this year, which lost two of its three games. There hasn’t been a repeat Super Bowl champion since New England in 2004 and 2005, or in the World Series since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000.
When asked by Sporting News how he will be able to motivate a team that reached such an extraordinary level of proficiency a year ago to push through another challenging year in the Premier League — and beyond — Guardiola responded by reminding everyone he was in this circumstance before, with Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He left unsaid that not only did he manage a repeat in both places, he was able to win three in a row with each of them.
“That is my business,” Guardiola told SN. “I know what I have to do.”
It was a fascinating response because Guardiola’s accent made it unclear which word carried the emphasis. Was it, “That is MY business,” and the public doesn’t need that particular answer in advance? Or was it, “That is my BUSINESS,” and one at which he excels beyond most mortals?
With someone as accomplished as Guardiola, it might have been both.
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