Do you feel that? That’s the oncoming rush of another Premier League season, which officially kicks off on Friday. After the greatest title race in league history last season, the Premier League could have a worthy sequel on its hands. League runners-up Liverpool returned all the important parts of their Champions League-winning squad, Tottenham and Arsenal both improved dramatically over the summer, and the mid-table teams made key signings across the board in their quest to give top teams a tougher challenge this time around. The problem is, Manchester City, the back-to-back champions with the two highest point totals in Premier League history, might be even better than last season.
It’s hard to argue that a team that piled up 98 points had any major weaknesses, but City weren’t invulnerable last year. The weakest link in the club’s stacked lineup was probably Fernandinho—or, more precisely, it was when City had to play when Fernandinho was either unavailable or not at 100 percent. The Brazilian’s role during manager Pep Guardiola’s tenure has been unglamorous, thankless, and absolutely critical.
Fernandinho’s main job is to sweep up behind City’s numerous attackers as they maraud forward into the opponent’s final third, thwarting any incipient counterattacks with well-timed tackles or fouls. He averaged two tackles per game in the league last season, to go along with 1.4 interceptions and 2.4 clearances, all team highs for midfielders, with the tackles being a team high regardless of position.
As important as Fernandinho has been as one of the few truly defensive-minded players on the pitch at any given time, his relatively slow and limited range of passing made him not quite the ideal fit with the Guardiola style built on rapid-fire ball movement. That, plus the team’s non-existent depth at the position, and the 34-year-old Fernandinho’s advancing age, made defensive midfield both the team’s biggest liability and its largest potential point of improvement.
After years of searching for the perfect defensive midfield upgrade, City finally found their man this summer in Rodri, formerly of Atlético Madrid. The 23-year-old Spaniard is that ideal Pep midfielder, as he is phenomenal with and without the ball. He is defensively very sound, as you’d expect of any feature player in Atleti manager Diego Simeone’s system, even if he isn’t the same kind of indefatigable human battering ram that Fernandinho is. Where Rodri really shines, though, is with his passing.
Rodi moves the ball quickly, accurately, and in all directions, with a playing style that has earned him justifiable comparisons to Guardiola’s old favorite DM, Sergio Busquets. The prospect of a Rodri-powered City team even better at maintaining possession and creating chances should scare Liverpool and the other would-be contenders, but even that won’t be as terrifying as City regaining one of the best attacking midfielders in the world.
A season after nearly winning the Premier League player of the year award, Kevin De Bruyne had his worst, most injury-plagued season since moving to Manchester in 2015. Recurrent leg injuries limited him to only 19 appearances in the league last season, and even when he did play, he wasn’t his usual self. De Bruyne started to look more like the real De Bruyne toward the end of last season, and he enters this campaign fully healthy. Should he stay fit and recover the form of his healthy years, City will become that much more unstoppable.
Of course, injury luck will have a lot to say about who finishes where in the table, and City have already taken a big blow there when Leroy Sané hurt his ACL in the Community Shield match. Though the speedy German winger had more or less lost his place in the team’s best starting lineup to Bernardo Silva, and though he was rumored to be on his way out to Bayern Munich before he got hurt, Leroy Sané was still a crucial part of the team, be it as a starter, a rotation player, or a super sub.
Sané’s ACL injury, which could keep him out for most of the season, robs City of a fantastic forward who finished with 10 goals and 10 assists in 31 league appearances. Without Sané’s pace and finishing—plus his ability to set up Sergio Agüero, Sterling, Silva, and Gabriel Jesus for goals of their own—City will have to rely on their main attacking trio’s health and the increased production from De Bruyne to keep their high-octane offense rolling.
Regardless of Sané’s injury, City do have enough top-end talent and depth to not only weather the blow, but to thrive in spite of it. On paper, this team should be even better than one that broke records and won arguably the most difficult title race ever. For that reason, Manchester City have to be everyone’s favorite to pull off the three-peat and win the league again. The journey should still be thrilling, and the title race should once again prove incredibly tight, but if things work out as they should, everyone else will once again be stuck looking up at the sky blue Goliath come season’s end.