There seems to be an even divide between those who believe your first title is the hardest and those who think holding onto it is tougher. Whatever your opinion of that is, Manchester City are only the fifth club to win the Premier League in twenty seasons, but in that time only two clubs have retained it. It is this statistic, coupled with a sense of mischievous humility, that guides Roberto Mancini’s prediction of Manchester United as title favourites. It is also the likely cause of Mancini’s disappointment that City have failed to improve their squad in the close season.
The signing of Jack Rodwell may appease the manager a little, but the young midfielder will be little more than a back-up option. Yet for all Mancini’s pessimism City will still start the season with the strongest squad in the league. Whereas a lack of transfer activity can occasionally lead to a threat of stagnation, this City side are still fresh enough to believe that they can still improve. Sergio Aguero’s scored thirty goals in his first season in England and may rightly feel he will be better for the experience this time around. The return of Carlos Tevez and the maturity shown by Mario Balotelli at Euro 2012 would further support the theory that Mancini’s attacking options are far greater than they were twelve months ago.
The one area City may have genuine grounds for concern lie in defence, where City still look overly dependent on Vincent Kompany. The Community Shield gave a further indication that Mancini has identified a back-three as an alternative system, following on from experimentation in the second half of last season. Many have suggested a 3-4-3 formation is the Italian’s attempt to get greater width from his midfield via wing-backs, but it may also be a means to give greater defensive protection. As City lack a true holding midfielder they were occasionally vulnerable to balls over the top last season that isolated the central defensive pair. By adding a third centre-back the team has an extra covering defender that can give the team greater stability, especially in the absence of Kompany or the inclusion of the hapless Stefan Savic.
How often Mancini uses a back-three will be an interesting feature of the season, as will a growing need to rotate his players. City almost paid for a lack of rotation last year when the likes of David Silva and Aguero lost form after Christmas, so that will certainly be an area the manager will want to address. A second African Cup of Nations in two years will also lead to the loss of Yaya Toura, surely the outstanding midfielder in the league. Mancini will have a lot to think about this season, with a desire to improve a poor European record an obvious focus, but City’s priority must be establishing themselves as multiple league champions.