They say that repeating as league champions is harder than winning it the first time around. The history of the Barclays Premier League bears this out. In the 22 seasons since the world’s most competitive league was created, just two clubs have managed to win it consecutively. Chelsea did in 2004-05 and 2005-06 and Manchester United, amazingly, did it four times — even more astonishingly, two of those were three-peats.
But as his predecessor Roberto Mancini discovered, juggling the increased expectations of the defending champions and a certain complacency for having won it already, can prove a combustible exercise. Mancini won the Premier League in 2011-12, but the following campaign was a bit of a shambles. His assembly of fabulously talented but mostly erratic strikers chafed under the limited minutes available to them all and eventually the inmates ran the asylum. The attack stopped producing at the clip it had before and without the luxury of abundant goals, the fissures and cracks began to show elsewhere.
Enter Pellegrini, whose tactical nous got the offense firing again and whose steady hand kept the peace that was so often disturbed by the fiery and publicly critical Mancini himself. City were plainly the deepest team in the league last year and he knew just how to rotate them so as to keep everybody healthy yet happy.
By the time the sallow-faced Chilean manager arrived, problem child Mario Balotelli, the forward who was as gifted as he was infuriating in his antics, had already been offloaded on AC Milan. Not two weeks after Pellegrini’s appointment, Carlos Tevez, the striker who had famously refused to come on late in a game under Mancini, was off to Juventus. Incessant drama cleared the way for peace. And the results, not terribly surprisingly, quickly improved with a League Cup and the league title.
Upon his appointment, Pellegrini had been informed — and it was shared with the public — that he would be expected to win five major prizes in five years. Only the Premier League, the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League would count. The subtext was naked: If you don’t do the business, someone else will. A year in, he is on track.
But the pressure for City to perform in Europe will be exponentially larger now that they’ve secured a second league title in the six-year-old cash-splashing Abu Dhabi era. Because the Citizens have made a hash of their three Champions League campaigns thus far. In their first two, they failed to survive the group stage. Granted, they got tough draws both times, but following years of heavy investment their depth exceeded just about anybody else’s in Northern Europe, if not all of the continent. Last season, they finally advanced but were summarily knocked out by Barcelona in the next round.
More will be expected this time around. And you can’t win in Europe on talent alone. It takes the savvy and comfort among teammates that cannot be bought, that can only be crafted slowly and carefully over several years. This, plainly, is not the City way, even if they make noises about growing their next generation of first-team players in-house.
English influence in European competition has been on the wane in the last few years. There are many working theories, but the most substantive one is that the Premier League’s unrivaled top-to-bottom depth simply makes for a more draining domestic season than that of their continental rivals. City should have the depth to cope. Midfield metronomes David Silva and Yaya Toure are still in their prime while Eliaquim Mangala was expensively acquired to play alongside defense rock Vincent Kompany. City are super sound and deep everywhere else as well.
"The Premier League is physically demanding," club captain Kompany admitted to reporters. "The December and January fixtures are no joke. But let’s be honest, we have a lot of resources at City. We are not victims of the situation here. The hardest thing is to win the first title. When it comes to retaining it, partially it’s a mental thing."
That very depth, however, is what tripped them up two years ago, when frustration set in about part-time roles once the greater good of winning the league no longer served as a worthwhile incentive for self-sacrifice. Several England internationals, namely goalkeeper Joe Hart, defender Micah Richards and midfielder James Milner, will find themselves in an unrelenting scrap for minutes. And the front line of Edin Dzeko, Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo and the much-improved Stevan Jovetic counts four players who are too good to sit, who will nevertheless have to squeeze into just two positions.
Certainly, City looked sharp in their stateside preseason, casually creating chances and showing off a growing familiarity between the players. But then they looked disjointed against Arsenal in a 3-0 Community Shield loss that had many asking questions. Some answered that City were without a host of starters, but then what is the point of so much depth if rotating your players causes a steep drop-off in performance?
"I think we are ready to start," Pellegrini told reporters before City’s Premier League opener against Newcastle. "This year we have the advantage that I already know the players and they know me. We won the title but it is difficult for the team that wins the title to repeat it, but we will try to do it."
You can make of all that what you will, of course. When it comes to City, evidence can be found to support just about any case — for an ascent or descent; imminent triumph or impending calamity. Because the talent is there to emulate the success of last year and the one three campaigns ago. And likewise, the ingredients for the chaos of two seasons prior are present as well.