Oleksandr Zinchenko

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Is Man City’s defense strong enough, or deep enough?

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Manchester City’s chances of repeating (again) as Premier League champions in 2019-20 appears to hinge upon the performances of one unit in particular: the defense.

[ MORE: 2019-20 season preview: Manchester City ]

It’s a rather thin unit which could have probably used reinforcements during the summer transfer window, but with barely 24 hours to go before the window closes, that’s a largely moot point. They are who they are, and they’ll kick off their quest for a third straight PL title against West Ham United on Saturday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com).

Thanks in large part to Aymeric Laporte proving himself worth every last penny of the $65 million he cost, and in smaller part a renaissance of health from Vincent Kompany, Man City shaved four goals from the conceded column in defending their 2017-18 PL crown (when they conceded 27 times) with another triumph in 2018-19 (23, one more than Liverpool).

[ MORE: 3 days to go until new PL season: Will Man City 3-peat? ]

Now, though, Kompany is gone after taking over as player-manager at Anderlecht, and Man City went against conventional wisdom and signed no one to replace his on-field production, let alone his off-field leadership. If paying $97 million for Harry Maguire was their best, or only, option, perhaps they are better off going this route.

Given the personnel that Pep Guardiola has at his disposal, he faces one of two — or, potentially two of two — unsavory options for how to line up his defense.

  1. In a back-three, he’ll have just one backup (Nicolas Otamendi, most likely) for three positions, likely to be occupied by Laporte, John Stones and Kyle Walker
  2. In a back-four, he’ll have three options who fit (Laporte, Stones, Otamendi) for two positions and one who’ll be forced out to right back (Walker), at which point he’ll still have just one backup

[ MORE: Will big-spending Spurs be Premier League title contenders? ]

If Benjamin Mendy can stay healthy for a full season, the full backs are likely to be a non-issue; Joao Cancelo should lock down the starting spot at right back after arriving at a bargain price; Angeliño is the wild card of the bunch; and Oleksandr Zinchenko has been up to the test when called upon in the past.

With all of that said, Man City’s safest path to having one of the PL’s best defensive records yet again lies ahead of the backline. When — not if, but when — they’re able to dominate possession each and every game, City’s midfield and forward line will squeeze the life out of opponents and leave the three, or four, at the back with precious little to do.

[ MORE: Man United to fine Lukaku for missing training without permission ]

Defensive midfielder Fernandinho was arguably City’s most important player in 2018-19 but he began to show signs of slowing down toward the end of last season, so they were wise to sign Rodri from Atletico Madrid for $78 million. It’s true that Kompany’s departure leaves a broad hole in the backline, but Rodri, along with the embarrassment of attacking talent ahead of him, should more than make up for his absence and give City a real shot at back-to-back-to-back PL titles.

3 days to go until new PL season: Will Man City 3-peat?

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Forgive the term 3-peat, but not too many teams win three consecutive titles in English football.

Manchester United did it from 1998-2001 and 2006-09, the only side to do it in the Premier League era. Before them, it was Liverpool (1981-84), Arsenal (1932-35), and Huddersfield (1923-26).

That’s it, so Manchester City is aiming to join pretty exclusive company when it tries to defend a trophy Liverpool as found as elusive company.

[ MORE: Manchester City season preview ]

Last season finished tight. City’s incredible follow-up to an unprecedented season was again enough for first place. That was just one point more than the flashy Reds of Anfield, who threw away a big time Christmas lead about as quick as a kid tosses away the wrapping paper.

But Jurgen Klopp‘s men claimed the Champions League, and have shown the ability to hang with City, and Spurs look primed to mount a season-long challenge as opposed to their tremendous free fall of last season (which coincided with their appearance and deep run in the knockout rounds of the UCL).

Here’s the thing, though: City is potentially the deepest, best team since their manager’s first 3-peater at Barcelona (He’s since done the trick at Bayern Munich, too).

City has questions at left back between Benjamin Mendy, Oleksandr Zinchenko, and Angelino. Oddly enough, Angelino may be the answer for City. The 22-year-old was bought back from PSV Eindhoven last season after a 1-goal, 9-assist league season and impressive-enough job in the club’s UCL run.

But it also addressed its thin defensive midfielder corp by adding a potential decade-long component in Rodri. There will be growing pains, but he’s going to be quite good.

City also has a healthy, rested Kevin De Bruyne and another year under the belt of Phil Foden. The season is David Silva‘s victory lap, which is fine because that other Silva, Bernardo, might’ve been their top performer last season.

Here’s the good news for City fans who believe Liverpool is right on its tail: They aren’t. The expected goals table says City should’ve finished with 90 points last season, not 98, but that Liverpool’s 97 were an even bigger over performance. The Reds expected finish was 83 points.

City has the ball more than everyone else, passes more and better than everyone else, shoots more than everyone else, and scores more than everyone else. Incredibly, those totals are the same home and away. That was true in Guardiola’s first PL title campaign, too, with the exception of finishing fourth in shots per game while away from home. Oooooo-verrated.

That doesn’t mean that Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea, Arsenal, or Manchester United won’t flip the script this season, that red cards or own goals won’t befuddle Guardiola’s quest. But you won’t find us betting against them.

Report: Mahrez could miss Man City’s first PL match

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Manchester City winger Riyad Mahrez has decided against having a summer break between the end of the Africa Cup of Nations and the start of the Premier League season, but he may not be able to take the field for his Premier League side anyway.

According to reports in England, Manchester City is awaiting clearance from doctors to ensure that Mahrez won’t be suspended and the club have a game forfeited should he take the field on Saturday against West Ham in the opening fixture of the 2019-2020 Premier League season. Mahrez reportedly took a substance to help with a sinus issue while in Algeria after his nation captured the 2019 AFCON title. However, it’s unclear what the substance was or whether it will come back positive after a drug test that players routinely have to take to prove they are clean of banned substances.

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The FA has reportedly approved Mahrez to play but it’s unclear whether the Premier League will also clear the former Leicester City star.

Following Man City’s win on penalty kicks over Liverpool in the Community Shield on Sunday, Man City manager Pep Guardiola said that he had hoped Mahrez would be cleared to play on Saturday. However, now, with the injury to Leroy Sane, Man City are a little short in top talent on the wing.

We could still see Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva set up out wide, and even Oleksandr Zinchenko can play wide left. But having no Mahrez even on the bench is a blow to Man City as it begins it’s latest title defense.

Player ratings: Liverpool v Man City

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LONDON — Manchester City beat Liverpool 5-4 on penalty kicks to win the Community Shield, after an intense game between the Premier League’s top two teams from last season.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

How did the players get on, out of 10?

Below we reveal our ratings from Wembley.


Liverpool

Alisson: 5 – Could have done better with Sterling’s goal and looked a little shaky.

Trent Alexander-Arnold: 6 – Rattled into some challenges but far from his usual marauding display.

Joe Gomez: 5 – Caught in possession a few times at center back and them moved out to right back.

Virgil Van Dijk: 7 – Stood tall and set up the equalizer. Classy player who grew into the game.

Andrew Robertson: 6 – Given a tough time by Bernardo Silva, but stood up to the challenge.

Jordan Henderson: 5 – Struggled to get going and took a knock in the second half.

Fabinho: 5 – Couldn’t stop City gliding through Liverpool’s defense.

Georginio Wijnaldum: 5 – Really struggled. Few loose touches and only player to miss a penalty.

Mohamed Salah: 7 – Could have scored three in the second half alone. Dangerous but didn’t score.

Roberto Firmino: 6 – One superb effort in the first half and decent movement, as always.

Divock Origi: 4 – His teammates couldn’t find his runs out wide. Ineffective.

Subs
Joel Matip on for Trent Alexander-Arnold (67′): 7 – Headed home the equalizer.
Naby Keita on for Fabinho (67′): 6 – Provided some surging runs. Good shot saved.
Adam Lallana on for Jordan Henderson (79′): N/A
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on for Divock Origi (79′): N/A
Xherdan Shaqiri on for Roberto Firmino (79′): N/A


Man City

Claudio Bravo: 7 – A few dodgy moments in the second half but saved the crucial spot kick. A very good back-up goalkeeper.

Kyle Walker: 6 – Dug deep defensively but rarely threatened going forward.

John Stones: 7 – Calm on the ball and did his best to hold City’s defense together.

Nicolas Otamendi: 6 – Dragged out of position quite a lot but made some great last-ditch interventions.

Oleksandr Zinchenko: 6 – Tough outing against Salah but kept plugging away. Scored his pen.

Rodri: 5 – Caught on the ball so many times. Has to get use to the pace of the game in England. Fast.

David Silva: 7 – Proper magician. Glides around the pitch with ease and set up Sterling’s goal.

Kevin De Bruyne: 8 – Constant threat, even though his final pass or shot was a little off.

Leroy Sane: 4 – Injured early on, which is a big shame. Last minutes in a Man City shirt?

Raheem Sterling: 8 – Scored one, but should have scored a few more. Superb pace, but poor finishing.

Bernando Silva: 7 – Another classy and tireless display. Criminally underrated.

Subs
Gabriel Jesus on for Leroy Sane (14′): 6 – Scored the winning penalty kick and put himself about.
Ilkay Gundogan on for David Silva (61′): 3 – One of the worst sub displays ever. Gave the ball away countless times. Scored his penalty kick though.
Phil Foden on for Kevin de Bruyne (89′): N/A

Three things learned: Liverpool v Man City

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LONDON — Manchester City beat Liverpool 5-4 on penalty kicks to win the 2019 FA Community Shield at Wembley on Sunday.  

After a 1-1 draw thanks to goals from Raheem Sterling and Joel Matip in either half, the game went to spot kicks and Claudio Bravo saved Georginio Wijnadlum’s penalty as City scored all five of theirs.

[ MORE: Player ratings | Recap ]

Man City and Liverpool finished just one point apart in the Premier League table last season and it went all the way to decide the winner of the Community Shield. Despite shaking off rust amid key absentees due to stars returning late from summer tournaments, City and Liverpool put on a show at Wembley.

It was an intense, high-tempo encounter which can’t often be said of this showpiece event.

Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp played up the importance of this game beforehand and their players obviously took those words to heart.

What did we learn from the traditional “curtain raiser” at Wembley?


Teams evenly matched, wasteful

On another day the score could have been 4-3 or 3-2. Both teams were guilty of being wasteful in the final third and some of their attacking stars were perhaps blowing away a few cobwebs.

Mohamed Salah missed two glorious opportunities in the first half alone. Virgil Van Dijk and Salah hit the woodwork in the second half. Kyle Walker incredibly hooked Salah’s shot off the line, while Sterling probably should’ve scored another two given the quality of his chances. Kevin De Bruyne‘s final ball and passes were a little off, while there was a general sense of frustration among both Guardiola and Klopp on the sidelines.

They know the way their teams played and the result of the Community Shield is not going to determine how this season goes for them. But the game was of high intensity and was also pretty adept at underlining the weaknesses both teams have. In the second half the end-to-end nature of the game was farcical, as you could be forgiven for thinking the latest NBA game had rolled into London.

This performance suggested two things:

1) There is still so little to choose between Liverpool and Man City.

2) Liverpool are a different team without one of their front three of Mane, Firmino and Salah up top, and so too are Man City without Sergio Aguero in their starting lineup.


Rusty Liverpool shaking off poor preseason

Not having six first team stars with Liverpool for the majority of preseason was far from ideal. And they do not appear to have dealt that well with it. At all. Salah, Firmino and Alisson returned this week after playing in the Africa Cup of Nations and Copa America, while Sadio Mane will return next week. With Naby Keita and Xherdan Shaqiri only just returning from injury too, Liverpool’s squad looks a little thin on the ground.

In the first half Man City overran them in central midfield but much to their credit Liverpool came roaring back in the second half and deserved to draw 1-1 in regulation. Salah led wave after wave of attack and even though it is clear Liverpool aren’t fully fit, it appears the rust from a disjointed preseason is falling off a little quicker than most expected.

Klopp will be hoping that the late returning stars give the rest of the squad a much-needed kick up the backside in the next few days before they face Norwich City in the PL season opener on Friday (Watch live, 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

The lack of a central midfielder who can dictate the tempo of the game and create openings is perhaps what they miss most if they’re going to truly push Man City all the way for the title once again this season. Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum are all workhorses and should be admired for how they press high and win the ball back for Salah, Firmino and Mane to cause havoc. It works. But having a player like David or Bernando Silva, someone who can slow things down and float around behind the strikers is something Liverpool have been calling out for.


Left side of City’s defense needs a revamp

True, Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold were the men marauding down the right flank for Liverpool but Oleksandr Zinchenko and Nicolas Otamendi didn’t half make them look good.

Granted, Aymeric Laporte will likely line up alongside John Stones in central defense this season, but it may be worth playing Laporte at left back based on this. Especially with influential leader Vincent Kompany departing. Do not underestimate his absence this season. As this game wore on Otamendi found his stride and Zinchenko kept plugging away too, but if there is any area City’s squad needs strengthening in it is at left back and center back. That is so obvious.

Zinchenko is doing the best he can as a makeshift left back but with Benjamin Mendy still out injured and Fabian Delph sold over the summer, City’s options at left back aren’t plentiful. With Joao Cancelo coming in at right back to battle with Kyle Walker, it is a little bemusing why City aren’t making a big play to sign a left back or center back this summer.

Teams will look to exploit that wing based on this showing. Yes, this was Liverpool shredding their left flank apart, but plenty of the PL’s other top six teams are capable of exploiting this weakness.