Cast your mind back to last summer. Man City had welcomed the all-conquering Pep Guardiola, an arrival years in the planning at senior levels within the club, and his side had finished 15 points behind champions Chelsea and flopped out of Europe in the second round.
Perhaps more painful on a personal level, the former Barca taskmaster saw his first trophyless season added to the glittering CV he’d amassed since swapping his playing boots for the managerial overcoat (though I’m sure he had some form of manager-appropriate footwear as well).
The oh-so-very-dull drone of Pep Fraud-iola inched up a decibel or two following a season where much was promised and very little delivered.
Pep sceptics – Peptics? – gurgled with glee over the Sky Blues’ struggles. Every panicked John Stones clearance, every Otamendi oddity, every Yaya no-no in the press, they all added up to a sense that the baldy buddha of the beautiful game had underestimated the scale of the challenge of the Premier League.
Applause was in short supply for last-minute Joe Hart replacement Claudio Bravo, whose mooted footballing skills were washed away under Manchester’s skies, and their Champions League hopes faltered when met with a Monaco side brimful of confidence and powered by one Kylian Mbappé.
Wafts of EPL triumphalism could be inhaled long and deep – ‘not so clever now, is he?’ – as the proverbial wet Wednesday nights at Stoke accounted for Pep’s first English league effort.
What a difference a year makes.
Guardiola’s City cantered to the title last season in record style, topping 100 goals and points and dismissing all doubts that the Spaniard’s heralded approach couldn’t be applied to a league more physically demanding than La Liga and more competitive than Germany’s top division.
Kevin De Bruyne, a player discarded by José Mourinho when at Chelsea for a perceived boyish fragility among the men of the Premier League, stamped his mark all over the English top flight having returned from Werder Bremen, making his former manager look as mistaken as he was a distant second to the 19-point league champions.
Leroy Sané tested the mental and physical reserves of defences with his winding runs and graceful touches, while Raheem Sterling thrived under Guardiola’s guidance, with Aguero and Jesus slotting home goal after goal.
Less remarked upon than their flowing attacking play, City’s defensive performance picked up sharply too. Though Pep abandoned the Stones experiment in favour of Nicolas Otamendi and Vincent Kompany’s partnership, they finished with the best defensive record in the league – a trait of many Guardiola sides in the past – and the real revelation came in goal, Ederson proving composed and dependable where his Chilean predecessor had been a consistent source of anxiety.
This summer they’ve added Riyad Mahrez to their array of attacking talent – the rich get richer – though missing out on Jorginho from Napoli as a midfield reinforcement is sure to irk the tiki-taka tactician.
Guardiola’s emphatically answered his critics regarding his Premier League calibre, but the growing weight of Champions League disappointments must be starting to play on the mind of a man so accustomed to success.
In his time at Bayern Munich, Guardiola took over a European Champion side that continued to romp to Bundesliga wins, but repeatedly failed in the latter stage of the continental challenge, often suffering lopsided losses as they exited.
While the spectre of the Premier League’s supposed resistance to his methods has now been dispelled, the suggestion that it only worked so successfully at Barcelona because of Leo Messi is a charge many still level at the celebrated Catalan coach because he has not won the club game’s biggest prize since he left the Camp Nou.
City as a club have spent almost a decade building up their footballing resources and infrastructure in their efforts attempting to become a regular league title winner and a challenger in the top club competition in the world.
We saw how the City players celebrated the reaching the 100-point mark in their final game last season despite having wrapped up the title weeks before, and their dominant displays throughout last year’s campaign were defined by the application of his meticulous methods, so it’s clear the players will buy into Pep’s plans.
If anyone is going to take them to the next level in their development, it will surely be Pep. The club has endured a stuttering relationship with the European Cup since Sheikh Mansour’s investment catapulted them into the big time, and that was encapsulated by their curious collapse in the first leg of last season’s decisive tie with Klopp’s Liverpool.
City suffered a torrid evening at Anfield, losing the first leg 3-0, before mounting a challenge at the Eastland’s stadium, but ultimately left the competition thanks to a 5-1 aggregate scoreline.
The Reds went on to the final and were beaten by a solid though far from vintage Real Madrid side, who seem to have won their last couple of Champion League titles by default.
Guardiola must surely see last season as a missed opportunity, and the question is can he inspire his immensely talented team to even greater heights in a Champions League field that looks as open as any in recent years?