Manchester City under prepared under Pep Guardiola as season looms
Preseason is done and dusted and Manchester City fans can now look forward to the real action for their side beginning on Saturday evening. However, having seen how the team has performed in the warmup matches, many might be questioning whether the new campaign is coming around too soon for the club and new boss Pep Guardiola.
While the starting lineups throughout the friendlies have been nothing like what the Catalan will begin with as Sunderland visit the Etihad in their Premier League opener, there are still grave concerns the squad haven't adapted to the new manager's style. On the evidence so far, they're struggling.
There doesn't seem to be too much wrong with the forward line. It's certainly where the club has spent the summer strengthening, with the likes of Nolito, Leroy Sane and Ilkay Gundogan coming in to bolster the ranks. City have only occasionally had trouble finding the net since Roberto Mancini's title-winning 2011-12 campaign and they have the talent to score fairly often.
However, there's the feeling they've never truly replaced the centre-back partnership of Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott from that time. As the season draws nearer, there's little sign of that changing.
As City played out a 3-2 defeat to Arsenal in their final friendly in Gothenburg, the manager began the match with something of a makeshift defence. Aleksandar Kolarov and Fernando have no experience of playing as central defenders, yet they were paired together for a significant time. There was no sign of Nicolas Otamendi, Jason Denayer or Eliaquim Mangala, though the manager's postmatch comments hint that the Frenchman could soon be departing.
Even highly rated youngster Tosin Adarabioyo was dropped to the bench and confined to a second half substitute role.
It was almost as if the manager was sending out an ultimatum to the club that they really need to meet Everton's valuation of John Stones and get a deal agreed. Going off the evidence of preseason so far, they can't afford to walk away for the sake of a few million pounds on the price tag.
The transfer window may be some way off closing, but can City really afford to go into the new campaign looking as rickety at the back as they did on Sunday? A bigger concern is that they might not have a choice, with captain Kompany definitely out injured and others missing having had very little time on the pitch in preseason.
There's been a distinct style change under Guardiola so far and it's clear that some of the existing squad aren't finding it easy to cope with. A pressing game has been implemented high up the pitch when City don't have the ball and while it's yet to be a raging success, there are signs that bit is working, at least.
However, Guardiola's insistence on the ball being played on the ground from defence is proving more problematic. Time after time in the defeat to Arsenal possession was surrendered cheaply in dangerous areas, and it wasn't through a single culprit either. Pablo Zabaleta, Gael Clichy, Willy Caballero, Joe Hart, Kolarov and Adarabioyo all struggled to find their teammates, making several errors to gift away chances and goals between them.
It must be frustrating for the new manager to watch. The positioning and the understanding of what to do are almost there, but basic passing skills are letting the players down.
As the goalkeeper receives the ball, the two centre-backs sprint to either side of the box and provide an option. A midfielder drops, offering themselves in the middle, and the full-backs head up the wing to provide further outlets. It would have worked perfectly had Arsenal not stepped up as City's defenders wilted.
How the Gunners weren't out of sight when Sergio Aguero netted was a mystery. They'd spurned several excellent chances, all created by forcing Guardiola's back four into errors.
A new manager bringing in a new philosophy isn't always going to have the smoothest of transitions and while the squads Guardiola inherited at Barcelona and Bayern Munich weren't as perfect as is often made out by rival fans, it's now clear that this latest contract is the Catalan's biggest challenge yet.
Plenty of City's shortcomings under Manuel Pellegrini have been addressed and they're looking in better shape for the new campaign than they were at the end of the last, but there are still some pretty big holes that need filling -- starting with the defence.
Guardiola could do with another month of preseason to get ready. Instead, he's got less than a week before a ball is kicked competitively. It's getting close to sink or swim time.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney