The 2018-19 Premier League XI: What could derail Man City’s title defense?

The 2018-19 Premier League season is upon us. Kickoff, believe it or not, is just days away. To get you set for the planet’s most enthralling 38-game soccer circuit, Yahoo Sports’ Premier League XI will delve into the 11 most compelling questions ahead of the coming campaign. We begin at the top, with the champions, Manchester City.

Shall we start with the records? Sure, just as a refresher … Points. Goals. Wins. Goal difference. General awesomeness. Manchester City, en route to its 2017-18 Premier League title, set new high-water marks for all of them.

The Citizens were unparalleled, a new-age blend of aesthetic brilliance and ruthless efficiency. They were the best team in the league’s 27-year history, quantitatively and qualitatively, romping to a 19-point margin atop the table in Pep Guardiola’s second season.

Ahead of year three, not much has changed – and that’s a good thing. Every player who started multiple league matches is back for a run at the Prem’s first repeat since last decade. A club-record signing has joined them. Guardiola is still a genius.

Manchester City lifts the 2017-18 Premier League trophy. (Getty)

So the question is not, Will Manchester City defend its Premier League crown? Instead, it’s, How could City not do so? What could possibly go wrong?

And answers, frankly, are hard to come by.

But they’re not non-existent. There are challengers. There are potential pitfalls. Most of them would seem to be in midfield.

The lone depth concern

Chief among them is Fernandinho – or the defensive midfield spot, if you prefer to consider it that way. The problem is that the two are one and the same.

City has two Champions League-caliber players at every single outfield position except holding mid. It has two experienced center backs and two 24-year-old ones. Its backup right back came from Real Madrid. When Benjamin Mendy tore his ACL last season, Fabian Delph magically morphed into the best left back in the league.

Up top, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus are both outstanding. Out wide, Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva and now Riyad Mahrez are battling for two spots. In the middle, Ilkay Gundogan somehow isn’t a first-choice starter.

But Gundogan is not a defensive midfielder. (Germany’s vulnerability at the World Cup was evidence.) Pep wanted Jorginho as a second option, but didn’t get him.

If there’s no Jorginho alternative, the “what if Fernandinho gets hurt” scenario still looms at the Etihad. It loomed last year as well. Fortunately for Guardiola, it never materialized. But that doesn’t mean it has evaporated. Just the opposite. With City’s pivot now 33 years old, decline joins injury on the list of concerns.

Because without Fernandinho, City might be vulnerable. His importance is his multidimensionality – his ability to cover ground, to press or hold, to win the ball, but also to pass and progress it. Gundogan can do the progression and the pressing. But he’s not the counterattack-disruptor and back-line shield that Fernandinho is.

Of course, there are “what if” worries at every club, and more at any of the other 19 than at City. But the point is that there is one. That another title cruise isn’t a forgone conclusion.

Which players could regress?

Aside from Fernandinho, there are a few other candidates for regression that could hinder City’s excellence.

One might be David Silva. The Spaniard was fantastic last season, both as a playmaker and as a counterpresser. But he’ll turn 33 in January. He looked old at the World Cup, and was somewhat emblematic of Spain’s stagnancy. Does he have another full season of Guardiola-ball in him? If not, can Gundogan – who himself has struggled with injuries in the past – pick up the slack?

Something else to consider here, however, that might mitigate concern: The Mahrez signing is a puzzling one. On the surface, it didn’t address a need. But there’s a chance it signals Guardiola’s intent to try Bernardo Silva more often centrally. The 23-year-old played there in the Community Shield, and could make a positional shift similar to the ones David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne made earlier in their respective careers.

The one other position of possible bother could be center back. There’s depth. But there’s no one sure thing. Vincent Kompany is 32, and hasn’t played more than 25 games in a season since 2014-15. Nicolas Otamendi had the best year of his career as a 29- and 30-year-old, but surely can’t replicate it. John Stones is talented but still somewhat mistake-prone, and Aymeric Laporte is unproven.

Again, there’s every chance Stones and Laporte develop into the league’s best defensive pairing; or Stones and Otamendi reprise last season’s first-half excellence. But there’s a non-zero chance their 2016-17 struggles re-appear.

City’s 2017-18 second half wasn’t dominant

City smashed records last year because of its first-half dominance. Pre-Christmas, it played 19, won 18, drew one, scored 60, conceded 12. Underlying numbers were just as strong: 52.4 Expected Goals for, 11.9 xG against.

After Christmas, though, it wasn’t otherworldly. It won 14, drew three and lost two. It scored only 46 goals and allowed 15. Its xG totals slid to 39.0 and 12.6.

City was still the best ream in the league. Every single one of those numbers is still phenomenal. But Liverpool’s came close at both ends. Tottenham won 43 points to City’s 45.

All of which is to say that the Citizens weren’t indestructible. What if familiarity neutralized their quality? What if their second-half performance projects out over the entirety of 2018-19? What if their league-high 16 World Cup participants (and seven semifinalists) get off to slow starts? And what if they run into some rotten luck?

They’d still be favorites. And you’d still bet on Guardiola to adjust and innovate – to stay ahead. But they’d be within reach.

Soccer is susceptible to flukes

In Pep’s first season, City’s xG underperformance was grotesque. Underlying numbers pegged it as the best team in the Prem. But it conceded nearly 10 more goals than chance quality would have predicted. Its finishing was mediocre. It came third behind Chelsea and Tottenham teams with xGD overperformance margins around 20.

Last year, City’s (and their opponents’) conversion rates didn’t just normalize; they exploded in the other direction. City’s process was really, really good; its results were even better.

But the contrast between the two seasons is instructive. In a low-scoring, high-variance sport like soccer, anything can happen over 38 games. “Anything” includes everything discussed above. Bookmakers give the reigning champs a roughly 60 percent chance to repeat. In related news, 40 is a big number.

The rest of the 2018-19 Premier League XI

Monday: What could derail Man City’s title defense?
Monday: Can Sarri revolutionize or stabilize Chelsea?
Monday: Who’s getting relegated?
Tuesday: Who, if anybody, can break up the top six?
Tuesday:
Is Liverpool closing on City?
Tuesday:
What to expect at Arsenal post-Wenger?
Wednesday: Is a Mourinho flameout already underway?
Wednesday: Is Spurs’ trophy deadline approaching?
Wednesday: Wolves: Shady, brilliant, or both?
Thursday a.m.: Predictions
Thursday p.m.: Transfer window winners/losers

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.