Pep Guardiola is entering unknown territory, facing up to one of the toughest challenges of his brilliant coaching career to date.
For the first time, the Manchester City boss will start his fifth season at the same club, making this his first ever rebuilding job, after last season’s underachievement in both the Premier League and Champions League.
An 18-point deficit to runaway English champions Liverpool was bad enough, but the FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal and European exit to Lyon made it clear that even average opponents are no longer afraid of Guardiola's once-intimidating side.
It’s been just over a month since that shock loss in Lisbon to Lyon – a side that finished seventh in Ligue 1 last season – meaning the Catalan coach has had little time to work on his side's deficiencies ahead of the start of the 2020-21 Premier League season.
Quarantines, internationals and holidays have shortened a pre-season usually reserved for fine-tuning tactics.
What makes it harder still is that City’s problems last season are difficult to explain and cannot be put down to simple factors such as a weak defence, a lack of creativity or a shortage of goals.
City were the Premier League’s leading scorers, goalkeeper Ederson won the Golden Glove for most clean sheets and Player of the Year Kevin De Bruyne equalled the record for most assists in a single season. They also thrashed runaway winners Liverpool 4-0.
However, City lost nine times in the league alone, including once to Norwich, who finished rock bottom, a massive 14 points from safety.
In that sense, City have become a truly confusing team. How can they create 28 chances against Watford and win 8-0, but then fashion 26 opportunities against Southampton and fail to score in a 1-0 defeat?
Remember, this is largely the same squad that posted record-breaking points hauls in their previous two seasons but then lost more games than they had during any previous campaign over the past 10 years.
Putting that right will test even a tactical genius such as Guardiola, and answers won’t simply be found in the transfer market, although City have made some moves to strengthen their panel of players.
Of course, the most thrilling transfer saga of the summer ultimately ended in disappointment, when Lionel Messi stayed with Barcelona, but the six-time Ballon d'Or winner would have been a luxury buy – a once-in-a-lifetime signing – rather than a key part of a long-term strategy to maintain the shape and quality of the squad.
City got a couple of deals done early in the window and both transfers will go some way to addressing a lack of depth that was exposed by the loss of Aymeric Laporte, when he was out for six months with a knee injury, and winger Leroy Sane, who didn’t kick a ball all season and has now moved on to Bayern Munich.
Dutch defender Nathan Ake may not have been the biggest name available on the market, and he arrived at the Etihad on the back of a disappointing relegation with Bournemouth, but there are plenty of reasons to suggest he will fit into City’s system.
Brought through the Chelsea Academy and with close to 150 Premier League appearances behind him, Ake will add some much-needed composure and organisation to a defence that looked uncertain when Laporte was absent.
As well as being comfortable on the ball, he spent much of his time at the Cherries playing in a back-three – something that Guardiola’s tried to disastrous effect in the Champions League quarter-final defeat to Lyon.
The 20-year-old is a direct replacement for Sane, who was sorely missed last year. City lacked a forward with his speed, directness and ability to stretch the pitch.
There are likely to be more reinforcements before the transfer window closes on October 5, with Senegalese centre-back Kalidou Koulibaly still a top target, even if negotiations with Napoli are progressing slowly.
Guardiola was guarded in his first news conference of the new season and didn’t want to discuss the club’s transfer business in too much detail, particularly as he was speaking for the first time about the possibility of signing Messi.
But he insisted he was happy with his lot.
"Since I arrived here, I’m more than satisfied in the team, and the club always does their best, not just for me but for the team," he said.
"Even if we have to stay with the players we have, I’ll be happy, and if we have to move someone on, maybe that's because it is the player that decides to leave.
"I’ve never complained before and I never will. I'm lucky to have these players and be at this club. That’s it.”
However, Guardiola will undoubtedly demand more from those that underperformed last season, with the onus on Benjamin Mendy to nail down the problematic left-back spot, and Bernardo Silva needing to rediscover his best form.
The loss of David Silva will be keenly felt but Phil Foden is ready to take over his role and Gabriel Jesus must now show he can be the full-time successor to Sergio Aguero, as the injury-prone City legend enters the final 12 months of his contract.
Rivals have strengthened and it would be difficult to argue that Liverpool do not have the best starting XI in the Premier League.
However, City arguably possess the deepest squad and, in the shortest season in Premier League history, that could be crucial."My feeling is good as always," Guardiola said. "It’s a joy to work with these players at this club, so the feeling is good like it always was."
With the clock ticking on Guardiola’s time at the Etihad Stadium, one thing is for certain: he will do everything to leave the club as a winner.