You might look at Manchester City, the treble winners sitting top of the table with the only 100 per cent record as they try to win their fourth Premier League title in a row, and think, “What could possibly stop them?”

Maybe the answer is: Manchester City. That’s because there are plenty of City fans who worry that the squad is weaker after the comings and goings of the transfer window.

It is an interesting discussion, with plenty of points and counter-arguments.

City let go of five players (Joao Cancelo, Aymeric Laporte, Cole Palmer, Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez) who made up Pep Guardiola’s squad this time last year and they have replaced them with four (Josko Gvardiol, Mateo Kovacic, Matheus Nunes and Jeremy Doku).

Inside Manchester City’s summer transfer window…

  • Why they signed Doku, the talented dribbler loved by Mbappe
  • Celebrating Gundogan, Guardiola’s ultimate clutch player
  • Watch: Does their defence actually need Gvardiol?

City have had one of the smallest squads in the league for years now and so losing an extra player sees them sailing pretty close to the wind. “If you know that nobody is going to get injured we have more than enough,” Guardiola’s assistant, Juanma Lillo, said on Friday. “We don’t know how things will happen, so we don’t know.”

In fact, even Guardiola is injured. On the pitch, they have lost Kevin De Bruyne for four months with a hamstring injury, John Stones has not yet featured this season, Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden have been ill and Jack Grealish missed the game at the weekend with a thigh injury.

When they beat Newcastle United, they did so without making any substitutions and choosing from, essentially, 12 players that Guardiola was actually likely to use (the starters and then Nathan Ake).

Tonight’s squad to face Newcastle United 🙌

XI Ederson, Walker (C), Akanji, Dias, Gvardiol, Rodrigo, Kovacic, Foden, Grealish, Alvarez, Haaland
SUBS Ortega Moreno, Phillips, Ake, Gomez, Perrone, Bobb, Palmer, Lewis, McAtee#ManCity @etihad

— Manchester City (@ManCity) August 19, 2023

So are the European champions moving forward as they always do, or have they taken a step backward? Maybe the answer is a bit of both.

Concerns over quality

The individual on-pitch quality of the players who have come and gone is only one factor in the debate. Gvardiol seems an excellent replacement for Laporte as he can contribute very well now and promises to get much better. Kovacic has started life at City well and seems a good alternative to Gundogan, even if the German basically became the ideal Guardiola midfielder.

Cancelo, as far as squad-building goes, is almost irrelevant as he left in January, was never expected to come back and City never thought to replace him, so adding Nunes into midfield gives them an extra option with different characteristics and means Foden and Bernardo can be freed up to play wide.

Mateo Kovacic at Manchester City

Kovacic has started well at City (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

So far, so good, but the arrival of Doku as the Mahrez replacement is a short-term area of concern. The 21-year-old Belgian is very raw and is expected to take at least a season to adapt to what Guardiola wants. The man he is replacing contributed goals and was very consistent even when coming in and out of the team.

With the sense that Cancelo had already left in January, City actually lost three players who made a contribution to the treble and have brought in four new players, which gives them more options and arguably makes them stronger. Perhaps, though, less X-factor: if Gundogan were on the bench there would be an expectation he could come on and make a big impact in a way that none of the new boys would… yet.

For big Champions League games last season, City had Foden, Mahrez and Julian Alvarez on the bench, which felt reassuring at least (even if Guardiola rarely uses substitutes anyway), whereas this season, the attacking options have included Palmer (who rarely started last season), James McAtee (who has since gone back on loan to Sheffield United), Sergio Gomez (similar to Palmer), Oscar Bobb (an exciting but untested 20-year-old forward) and Doku. It is easy to see why the numbers may technically be up but goal threat (and excitement) is down.

Injuries have compounded exits

While injuries have shone a bright light on City’s small squad, it is also true that once those players recover, Guardiola’s squad list will look much stronger and he will also have far more options available to him.

Stones helped revolutionise City’s game plan in the spring and when he returns — which should be after the international break — he can come back in either at centre-back or right-back. That will mean that Guardiola can go back to moving Stones into midfield (when deemed necessary), which then allows Kovacic (or Nunes) to operate further forward, freeing Foden or Bernardo to be used on the wing rather than centrally (lessening the reliance on Doku). It also means that Manuel Akanji, who does not look as comfortable as Stones in the role, can revert to a more defensive-focused capacity.

John Stones at Manchester City

Stones’ return is likely to dramatically alter Guardiola’s formation (Stu Forster/Getty Images)

When De Bruyne is back — and presumably starts — City will go back to a situation where they have Kovacic and/or Nunes, Foden and/or Bernardo and Alvarez on the bench, as well as Doku, and there is quality and versatility on the bench.

Providing there are not many more injuries along the way…

A refresh was needed

One of the reasons why the individual quality of the players is not the only factor in this debate is because it overlooks the reality that successful teams need to refresh their squads to keep them at the top — and that is needed more than ever after winning a treble.

Had City signed different players (they initially wanted Jude Bellingham and then Declan Rice, and also Lucas Paqueta) or even signed extra players (they gave strong consideration to Eberechi Eze), they could have refreshed the team in a way that may have contributed more quality immediately, or at least gave a greater feeling of excitement (for whatever that is worth).

But the business they have done seems astute. Gvardiol was probably world football’s most sought-after defender and, at 21, he is a long-term investment. Kovacic is 29 but is making instant contributions and should still have two or three seasons at the top left in him. Nunes is a harder sell compared to Bellingham or Rice but he impressed City when he played against them 18 months ago for Sporting Lisbon and brings new characteristics to the midfield, helping them evolve their game.


And Doku sums it all up: he might not hit the ground running, but with his skills and age (21), he looks like a solid long-term investment.

These players will all be desperate to lift the trophies that their team-mates have already won, and that should help keep everybody on their toes. And Kyle Walker, speaking at the weekend, has said that he is now determined to win trophies for those new guys so that they can get in on the act too.

And City chose not to sign Eze partly because Guardiola actually likes a small squad, and knowing that De Bruyne will be back for the second part of the season.

Saying bye to ‘bad faces’

Another aspect of the summer business that will not be immediately obvious by looking at the team sheet is that City have moved on players who often complained when they were left out of the team: Mahrez, Laporte and, particularly, Cancelo.

Guardiola’s “no bad faces” policy dictates that if you are left out of his team, you need to suck it up and get on with it. That was not always the case with those players.

They all made big contributions to City over the years and being grumpy when they did not play was clearly not a massive hindrance to the club’s progress, but Guardiola and his coaches and captains do work hard to maintain a positive, committed dressing room environment and “bad faces” are considered detrimental to that.

The summer business should have helped with that (as long as the new boys are fully accepting of some time on the bench…)

Guardiola finds a way

There is one more major factor to consider: Guardiola always finds a way. They wanted two left-backs and a centre-back in 2017 but only got one left-back, Benjamin Mendy. He then got injured and so did lynchpin Vincent Kompany, which was considered the nightmare scenario that summer, and yet they won the title with 100 points.

Pep Guardiola holds the Champions League trophy

Guardiola guided City to European glory last season (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Every summer since there has been a clamour to sign a left-back and City have never done it, and have always been fine. They missed out on Lionel Messi in 2020 and signed their third-choice centre-back to replace Kompany, but that happened to be Ruben Dias. They failed to get Harry Kane in 2021 when Guardiola was very concerned about his side’s lack of firepower. In both of those seasons, they won the title by using a succession of false nines, with Dias taking a leading role at the back.

In January, they moved on Cancelo, one of their two senior full-backs, prompting concerns that they would struggle without the Portugal international in terms of numbers in the squad and invention from full-back. They won the treble.

These things are not always worth worrying about.

So are they stronger or weaker?

The Athletic suggested halfway through last season that City’s stuttering form was a result of Guardiola trying to find the right formula to thrive with Erling Haaland and that signing the Norwegian represented a step backwards (in terms of performances compared to recent years) in the hope that there would be a giant leap forward… and then they won the treble.

Perhaps City’s summer changes mean they are not quite as strong as last season right now but that the squad has been improved in other senses, setting them up well for the future. They are probably still capable of winning multiple trophies this season.

(Top photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)