Everton game offers Man City a chance to prove Pep Guardiola progress
After an encouraging start in the 2-0 victory at Brighton, Manchester City fans have to wait until Monday night's clash with Everton to get their next glimpse of their new-look team. Following a raft of changes in the summer, including £200 million of new players and a tactical and formation shift, there have been a number of exciting performances since the start of preseason and fans are eager for the momentum to continue.
A weight of expectation followed Pep Guardiola to City. In his opening campaign, he was thought by some to be the magic bullet that would solve all of the club's issues. They'd been defensively slack and particularly lightweight against the top sides in the league during Manuel Pellegrini's final season; too many thought that would just go away with the new boss in the dugout.
But there's a valuable lesson to be learnt from how 2016-17 ended. While it was an improvement on the year before, there were still major problems that saw City's title challenge fall apart before January. Defensive errors continued, the team too often didn't perform when the going got tough, and they wasted too many chances.
The Everton clash provides an opportunity for Guardiola to prove that some of the ills from last season have been solved. As, if there was any game that summed up why City were so far off the pace, it was the 1-1 draw with the Toffees last October.
Claudio Bravo had nothing to do, bar picking the ball out of his net from Romelu Lukaku, while City missed a raft of chances at the other end, including two penalties, before Nolito salvaged a point.
In isolation, the result wouldn't have been too much of an issue -- however, it was the first of three successive 1-1 draws at home, as Southampton and Middlesbrough also took shares of the spoils. Last season, City had their best ever Premier League away record and still ended up trailing Chelsea by 15 points -- the damage was done at home.
City have once more been installed as title favourites, bringing added pressure onto the manager's shoulders, though Guardiola doesn't seem to be fazed by it. Perhaps it's because the club's summer has been one of the smoothest in comparison to others around them, such as Chelsea or Tottenham. But there's still plenty that could change before May.
Ten wins from the opening 10 games in all competitions last season papered over some serious cracks and set expectations high. It's up to Guardiola to prove in his second year that his solutions are more long-term. He needs a solid defence and a clinical attack, which was on display at Brighton -- even if it's only the first game of the new season.
In last season's meeting, Everton's gameplan was to frustrate City. It worked. Ronald Koeman's team showed little ambition and kept their shape, forcing City to pass the ball sideways and backwards. Only when the right moment came did they break, taking the lead courtesy of poor play from Nicolas Otamendi and Gael Clichy.
Having spent over £100m themselves, the Toffees should be eyeing Monday's trip to the Etihad with a little more belief than to do the same again. That may play into City's hands, if it gives more space for the attacking players to get in behind their opposition, though it may also test just how well Guardiola has fixed his side's rearguard over the summer.
Of course, whether or not City win on Monday won't decide whether they'll take the title this season. But the match could act as an indicator of the club's development under the Catalan. He was humiliated in a 4-0 loss at Goodison Park in the last meeting between these sides, too -- so he may feel like he owes his former Barcelona teammate a beating.
It will be interesting to see how Guardiola approaches the game. He could keep the back-three set-up, pressing both Kyle Walker and Danilo high from the wing-back positions and allowing both Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus to start. He may be more cautious, however, switching to a more orthodox back four and bringing Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane into an attack that looked extremely dangerous at the end of last season.
Having those options marks the biggest difference from 2016-17. Too often, the starting XI picked itself -- Guardiola now has more options at his fingertips, making it even harder for opposing managers to work out what he's going to try.
It'll be no simple task taking maximum points on Monday, but sooner or later City will have to stop looking at matches as potential banana skins and view them as home bankers.
The title wins in 2012 and 2014 were built on a foundation of great home form. It's been too long since City haven't struggled against teams they should be beating at the Etihad, and that needs to change this season.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney