Only Liverpool have been able to stay within touching distance of Manchester City as the Premier League’s dominant force in recent times. Indeed, Pep Guardiola’s team have won four of the last five titles, but this has been a summer of change at the Etihad Stadium, not just in new players that have arrived, but in those that have left.
Erling Haaland and Kalvin Phillips have signed for the reigning Premier League champions with City reportedly keen to add a left back to their squad before the start of the 2022/23 season.
Gabriel Jesus has, however, left the club for Arsenal, while it was officially announced yesterday that Raheem Sterling will depart for a Chelsea this summer.
Sterling’s exit in particular is notable given that he notched 131 goals and 94 assists in 337 appearances for Manchester City. He is one of the club’s best ever players and at 27 years old has plenty more to offer. Nonetheless, Guardiola has made the decision to move on from Sterling, who was into the final 12 months of his contract.
This is a gamble. Haaland might well be the most potent centre forward of his generation, but the Norwegian has a patchy injury record. He might also need time to acclimatise to a new country, league and way of playing under a new manager – something even the best of players go through. If this is the case, City might not have many others who can step in now that Jesus and Sterling are gone.
Jesus showed signs of development last season, contributing 13 goals from an adapted position out wide. The Brazilian was a key figure for Manchester City as they won the Premier League and made the semi-finals of the Champions League, offering just as much on the ball as he did off it. In many ways, Jesus grew into the perfect Guardiola wide forward.
Arsenal have picked up a player ready to take the next step in his career. Mikel Arteta seems intent on using Jesus as a number nine through the middle, but the 25-year-old is mobile enough to play a fluid role at the front of the pack. Jesus has joined a team willing to shape itself around him and that could bring the best out of him.
Chelsea will also build around Sterling, whether that’s as a wide forward, a second striker or a number nine. The departure of Romelu Lukaku points to Thomas Tuchel adopting a more fluid approach in the final third this season, with Sterling sure to compliment Kai Havertz as Chelsea’s mobile attacking apex. In theory, the pair should work well together.
City and Liverpool are so far ahead of the rest of the competition at the top of the Premier League that Guardiola is presumably relaxed about allowing two players of Jesus and Sterling’s ability to join a direct rival this summer. But there is a potential scenario in which Manchester City come to regret this.
It wasn’t so long ago that Chelsea were seen as genuine Premier League title contenders after winning the Champions League in 2021, when they triumphed over Manchester City in the final. While the Blues are rebuilding large portions of their team this summer, Tuchel remains one of the best managers in the European game. If anyone can point Chelsea in the right direction again, it’s the German.
Arteta’s Arsenal might have missed out on a top four place and Champions League qualification last season, but they are undoubtedly on an upward trajectory. The signing of Jesus will only accelerate their progress and pull them closer to the top of the Premier League table – where they could soon become a legitimate threat to City and Liverpool.
“I think the club has done a tremendous job to recruit a player of this stature,” Arteta said after the signing of Jesus. “It’s somebody that I know personally really well, and we all know really well because he’s played in the league and been really successful. It’s a position that’s been on our radar for a long time now and we have managed to get a player that we all wanted, so I’m really happy.”
Of course, Guardiola has evolved his Manchester City team many times before since arriving at the club back in 2016, and it’s right that he should continue to do so. The best teams never stand still. They look to improve even when they are in a position of strength and that’s what City are seeking to do. But by striving for further improvement, City might have inadvertently – and significantly – improved their rivals.