We should know better than to judge Pep Guardiola's approach in terms of conventional wisdom. There's little that's conventional about the guy and the way he runs a club, yet the outcome is a boatload of silverware, culminating in last season's treble.
We, however, are conventional humans, and that's all we can do: take him at face value. And at face value, Pep Guardiola suggests this Manchester City side are decidedly incomplete post-treble.
No, it's not the insipid 60 minutes or so they served up against Arsenal in the Community Shield. That game is a nice way of whetting the appetite for the Premier League season, but it has about as much bearing on what's to come as Taylor Swift's choice of jeans has on the consumer price index: not a lot. Rather, it's simply a numbers game.
Manchester City's official website lists 22 senior outfield players. Of those, one (Josh Wilson-Esbrand) has already left on loan, another (Joao Cancelo) was on loan in the second half of last season, wasn't included in the Community Shield squad and doesn't seem to be in Pep's plans. Another four (Maximo Perrone, Cole Palmer, Kalvin Phillips and Sergio Gomez) mustered a combined six league starts for City last year.
That takes you down 16 senior outfield players, but that includes Aymeric Laporte, a regular two years ago who spent most of last year on the substitutes' bench, and also may look for a way out to get regular playing time ahead of Euro 2024. It also includes Kyle Walker, who is 33, has a year left on his deal and was linked with a move to Bayern earlier this summer.
I know what you're thinking. "No problem, Pep's got this: they played 62 games last season, their squad wasn't significantly bigger than it is now, and they still won the treble."
Point taken. In basic terms, it's two in (Mateo Kovacic and Josko Gvardiol) and two out (Ilkay Gundogan and Riyad Mahrez), and there's no reason to be concerned. Except ... well, conventional wisdom suggests that managers in a position of strength (and nobody is in a greater position of strength right now than a guy like Pep) like some form of insurance. Especially heading into a season that, in addition to last year's burdens, will throw up a trip to Saudi Arabia for the Club World Cup and will be compressed and congested heading into the Euros.
Don't take my word for it -- take Pep's.
Craig Burley and Kieran Gibbs explain why Arsenal's Community Shield victory over Man City is important for the club.
Asked about the mental and physical toll of the fixture calendar before the Community Shield, Guardiola was blunt. "Every year it's getting worse and worse, and it will be getting worse, and I don't know how it's going to end, honestly... The problem is here [mental]. They are exhausted. Look already how many are injured in the preseason ... but it is what it is. We have to adapt and adjust, but it's not normal."
Adapt? Adjust? Like maybe by having a slightly bigger squad and rotating players a little more? Apparently not. He does things his way, and there's no arguing with his results. Even something as mundane as using up all five of his substitutions (especially when City have locked up the game late, which happened a lot in a league campaign that saw them win 20 matches by two or more goals) is something he's loath to do: Guardiola used less than two-thirds of his substitutions last year.
People talk about City's strength in depth and, sure, it looks impressive when -- like you did in the Champions League final -- you can start with Julian Alvarez, Phil Foden, Mahrez and Walker on the bench, but there's a pretty steep drop-off after that.
At the attacking end, it's a game of musical chairs made possible by the players' versatility and Pep's tactical flexibility. Between them, Alvarez and Foden are your backups for the front four positions. If one guy is out, no sweat. Two out? We're OK. Three out? Hello, Cole Palmer. (Which, to be fair, if he conjures up moments like he did on Sunday, fine.)
What about midfield? Assuming Kovacic can fill Gundogan's big shoes (the ones he wore last season), it's him, Rodri and John Stones for two positions. And that's assuming Stones isn't needed to play in central defence, like happened on Sunday. Otherwise, you're looking at Phillips and Rico Lewis (in the latter's case, assuming he's not required to play fullback). That's a lot of assumptions.
The fact that Guardiola isn't wedded to labels and positions, embracing fluidity and versatility instead, is great and has been a hallmark of his success. But the risk of having more chairs than reliable proven performers to sit in them is very real, given the campaign ahead.
Maybe he thinks guys like Palmer, Lewis and Phillips (despite his wretched first season at the Etihad) are ready to step up and play more minutes. Maybe he'll pull some other youngster out of the hat? Goodness knows that City's Academy is one of the most productive around. Maybe Rodri, who played an unreal 68 games last season for club and country, is actually a cyborg made of vibranium and will never get hurt. (And maybe some of that will rub off on Kovacic who hasn't started more than 23 league games in a season since 2015.)
He can think whatever he wants to think; he's been proved right enough times. But viewed from the outside, it feels, at a minimum, like a distinctly unconventional approach, like the guy buying a Ferrari but not bothering with insurance.
That's why -- and this is just a hunch -- you wonder whether he'll wade back into the transfer market late. He did it last season, bringing in defender Manuel Akanji on deadline day. Akanji was relatively under the radar. He came with a transfer fee of £15m, he was coming off a couple of lacklustre seasons at Borussia Dortmund, he was supposed to be an insurance policy at the back and little more. Instead, he was one of City's best defenders last year.
Right now, City could use another insurance policy, and heck, if he ends up having an Akanji-like season, that's a bonus. It may be a boring and conventional thing to do, but you can't help but wonder: does Pep have something up his sleeve?