Can Manchester City Retain the Title Without a #9?
Over the last decade, Manchester City has been one of the most dominant English football clubs in the Premier League. Backed by significant investment from its owners, the Manchester-based club has had a meteoric rise winning five Premier League titles in ten seasons, with three won in the last four years. Their ability over this timespan can’t be disputed, but why are people questioning if they have what it takes this season?
What made Manchester City’s title win last season so incredible was that they did it without an elite, traditional #9. A pure #9 is the highest attacking operator on the pitch, also known as a center forward or striker. Their role is to hold up play, distribute simple passes, and be the focal point for the entire team regarding offensive strategy. This issue began for Manchester City when their number one attacking option, Sergio Aguero, sustained a terrible knee injury in June 2020. Since then, he’s been plagued by multiple injuries and was out for nearly their entire domestic campaign last season. Manchester City adopted a false nine formation to adapt to this issue, with a deeper-lying playmaker in the center forward role rather than a striker. It worked marvelously, as City won the league and finished top scorers. A masterclass by their Spanish coach Pep Guardiola.
While City performed admirably last season, they did so in a less competitive Premier League. One could argue that City were only able to successfully operate without a center forward due to the lack of capable defensive opponents in the Premier League. Manchester United finished runners-up but never possessed the quality to challenge for the title. Even though they won the Champions League, Chelsea was hindered due to their poor start in the Premier League under Frank Lampard, who later got fired midway through the season. The reigning Premier League champions at the time, Liverpool, finished fourth and were without their best player in Virgil Van Dijk through injury. For most of that season, Liverpool looked like they would finish mid-table if it weren’t for a phenomenal winning run at the end. Leicester City lacked the proper consistency to finish in a Champions League position. West Ham United, a side which over the last two seasons finished 16th and 10th respectively, finished 6th. Everton and Arsenal weren’t competitive beyond the beginning of the season, and Tottenham under Jose Mourinho couldn’t stop conceding goals. Fair play to Manchester City because they took advantage of an opportunity and came out victorious – I’m not taking anything away from that. It’s important to note that Sergio Aguero has left the club this summer, leaving a gaping hole up top for Manchester City. Before, the hole was there because of injury; now, it’s there because of a lack of personnel. Unless they spend over £150 million on Harry Kane this month, that probably won’t change.
This season is different. Manchester United has brought in a top-five center back in the world in Rafael Varane and Jadon Sancho, a top-five young attacker globally. Both individuals walk straight into the first team at Man-U. Chelsea purchased one of the best #9s around in Romelu Lukaku, fresh off winning the Serie A title with Inter Milan. Additionally, Chelsea’s manager Thomas Tuchel is at the helm for his first full season with the club. Liverpool now has Van Dijk back and reinforced the defense with Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig. Tottenham appears to be on the right track with new manager Nuno Espirito Santo and Arsenal have spent over £100 million this summer. Leicester will continue to be competitive, and Everton brought in Premier League proven manager Rafa Benitez.
The 2021-2020 Premier League season will be exciting, because in my opinion, whoever is the most consistent side will win the title. It’s shaping up to be the most competitive Premier League season in recent memory. We’ll see if Manchester City can continue its dominance without a proper center forward. Early signs indicate by their 1-0 loss to Tottenham that the league has figured them out without playing with a striker, so we’ll see if they can continue to overcome the odds.
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