While I’m sure the majority of City fans are excited at the prospect of yet another crack at staying in the Premier League, this one comes loaded with rather more anxiety than those in years gone by.
While it’s been generally regarded as a pretty good window for City so far – in terms of numbers, I’m not sure any PL side has been more active than us – most fans accept that there are still some pretty big gaps in the squad that need to be filled before we can be considered Premier League ready.
But it’s not just the prospect of a squad that’s a little thin on the ground in certain areas that’s the only cause for concern. Equally troubling is the fact that in the last five days, two of City’s seven planned friendlies have had to be scrapped due to covid seeping into the City camp – the games against Coventry and Sheffield United both forming part of a carefully calculated plan to increase the intensity as the Liverpool game edges closer.
It’s nobody’s fault of course – and perhaps we should have seen it coming after Angus Gunn and Jacob Sørensen were both forced to miss the Huddersfield game after testing positive – but it’s clear now there are others who are isolating as a result of catching the virus and who, even if they’re asymptomatic or their symptoms are mild, will not be part of the group that is training at Colney.
We’re not the only club to be undergoing a Covid-affected pre-season – Newcastle, among others, have been affected too – but with the Liverpool game just 13 short days away it’s not unreasonable to assume we’re going to open the season a little under-cooked, or at least under-cooked compared to where Team Farke wanted us to be.
With no game time whatsoever so far for Grant Hanley and Ben Gibson – the former being rumoured to be one of those self-isolating after testing positive – there looks to be a possibility that Salah, Firminho and Mane will be faced with a back three of Andrew Omobamidele, Christoph Zimmermann and AN Other (possibly Sørensen if he’s recovered). With no disrespect intended to any of those players – all have contributed to the club’s success over the last season and beyond – that’s a mismatch nobody wants to see.
Obviously work is ongoing both behind the scenes and on the fields of Colney to address this, in terms of new personnel and enhanced fitness regimes, but minutes in the legs are what really count at this stage of pre-season and we’ve been denied 180 minutes of it – through the fault of no-one.
What we have to hope is that these early blows to our preparations aren’t a sign of things to come and the new campaign doesn’t transcend into another of what-ifs and hard-luck stories. The centre-back debacle of 2019-20 was only one aspect of why it all went wrong but was a significant one nonetheless.
We cannot afford another, just as we cannot afford to write off the first four games because on paper they look impossibly difficult. If there is one thing we have learned from our recent experience in the PL, it’s that, compared to the slog of the Championship, it’s over in a flash.
There can be no games that are written of as ‘free hits’, where anything other than a hefty defeat is regarded as a bonus. Teams that survive do so by springing the odd surprise result and by picking up the odd point here and there from opponents deemed better than them.
So, to go into the Liverpool game and those beyond ‘under-cooked’ is not going to help.
The anxiety has been further heightened by the Todd Cantwell to Villa rumours, brought about by a reported £100m bid from Man City for Jack Grealish. Reports suggest that if the deal does go through, Dean Smith will again turn again to the fertile fields of Colney to add flair and invention to his midfield.
Given that Grealish to City hasn’t even happened yet, there appears to be a way to go before this comes to fruition, but there’s too much logic here to just shut our eyes super-tight and hope it goes away. Cantwell to Villa, with a Grealish-shaped hole in their midfield kind of fits. Unfortunately.
If the worst does happen, we can take comfort in the fact Stuart Webber will use every card in his hand to push the price up to £30m and beyond, but with less than two weeks to go? And with a squad that’s already weaker than the one we got promoted with?
I’m not sure this sits comfortably with anyone even if £30m plus for Cantwell is a bloody good deal. It would just leave another hole to fill with days running out and a dearth of creativity in a squad that is not exactly bulging with it right now. I’d rather he just stayed put, to be honest. We need him.
Personally, if it really has to happen, I suggest Webber attempts a player-swap deal with that Emi Buendia. I’ve heard that he’s pretty good.
Running alongside the Cantwell story, are rumours of City being in for 19-year-old Greek winger Christos Tzolis, who plays for PAOK, from whom we bought Dimitris Giannoulis. The story tells of an initial bid of circa €4million (£3.4m) that was declined and the club preparing an improved offer of €11million (£9m) but with now other clubs entering the fray.
He’s clearly a player of interest to City (whatever that actually means) but with other teams now reported to be hovering, one wonders if City are merely pawns in a Greek game of brinkmanship that’ll see the player either sign a hugely enhanced contract with PAOK or head somewhere far more exotic than Norwich.
I’d love to be wrong but I’m not sure this one comes off; at least not while Cantwell remains a City player.
There is of course the rather more soothing thought of there being actual fans inside Carrow Road on Tuesday night when, hopefully, Gillingham are our visitors.
For many, this will be their first experience of the old place since that win against Leicester on 28 February 2020 and so, friendly or no friendly, it will be an emotional one.
For me personally, I’m saving that experience for 14 August when (hopefully again) a sense of normality will return to all our lives in the safest way possible.
Here’s hoping. at least