London: Pep Guardiola faces a stern test of his managerial philosophy as the Manchester City boss aims to overhaul Premier League champions Liverpool this season.
After an extra week of rest due to their involvement in the latter stages of last season’s Champions League, Guardiola’s side start their Premier League campaign with a tricky trip to Wolves on Monday.
It is exactly the kind of fixture that proved fatal to City’s hopes of retaining the title last season.
They were beaten twice by Wolves, eventually losing nine league games and finishing a massive 18 points behind Liverpool.
Guardiola knows City cannot afford so many unexpected stumbles this season if they are to end Liverpool’s reign.
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But the Spaniard himself might need to look in the mirror as he contemplates the reasons for City’s steep decline.
His inability to fix City’s defensive problems and constant tinkering with his midfield and attack seemed to spread confusion and frustration among his squad.
Only Kevin De Bruyne enjoyed a transcendent season for City and the Belgian midfield maestro could not carry his team all alone.
Guardiola’s positional switches destabilised City again in their shock Champions League quarter-final loss to Lyon in August.
Throw in Arsenal’s FA Cup semi-final win over City, in which Gunners boss Mikel Arteta outwitted his former mentor, and it is easy to see why some are questioning Guardiola’s ability to take his team back to the top.
City have the quality in their squad to beat anyone — as they showed in a 4-0 rout of Liverpool last season — but does Guardiola have the hunger and ability to make it happen on a consistent basis?
Luring Lionel Messi from Barcelona would have boosted to City’s title prospects, but the Argentine superstar was eventually forced to end his attempt to reunite with former boss Guardiola.
Instead, City have brought in Dutch defender Nathan Ake and Spanish winger Ferran Torres, while Napoli centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly reportedly remains a target. Guardiola insists he will not complain if those are his only new signings, despite the heavy spending of title rivals Chelsea and Liverpool’s swoop for Bayern Munich star Thiago Alcantara.
“Since day one, since I arrived here, I’ve been more than satisfied with the team and the club does everything to do their best, not just for me, but for the team,” Guardiola said.
“What is going to happen is going to happen. If we have to stay with the players (we have) I’ll be happy, or if we have to move someone (on) — because sometimes it is the player that decides to leave.
“I’ve never before, or in the future will I complain. I’m lucky to have these players and be in this club.”
City’s failure to replace Vincent Kompany last year proved hugely detrimental and his absence was compounded by a long-term injury to Aymeric Laporte.
City’s title defence faltered early on and they were never able to produce a strong challenge to Liverpool.
With Laporte an unlikely starter at Molineux, having only returned to training on Friday following a positive COVID-19 test earlier this month, former Bournemouth defender Ake seems certain to make his debut, while Torres is also in contention.
“So far really, it is really good. What we have to do, all the players and staff, and all the people close, is to help them to settle as quickly as possible,” Guardiola said.
“And the most important thing is they are two nice people and it’s good to have them with us.”
City’s record goalscorer Sergio Aguero is still recovering from the knee surgery that has sidelined him since June and could be two months away from a return.