With their title hopes all but evaporated, Manchester City went into Tuesday’s game less concerned with catching Manchester United than holding off Tottenham in third, who were now only two points behind Mancini’s side following their victory in the North London derby. For Aston Villa, their battle against relegation continued and a point would have taken them ahead of Wigan and out of the relegation zone.
After Yaya Toure impressed in an advanced midfield role against Chelsea last week, he kept his place at the head of a midfield three. With the Ivorian playing in front of Jack Rodwell and Javi Garcia, it was a combative midfield which also provided aerial support for the defenders. Indeed, Villa have looked at their most dangerous from crosses into the box in recent weeks, and Mancini’s inclusion of the physically imposing Garcia and Rodwell ahead of the less mobile Gareth Barry was surely part-motivated by this. With Vincent Kompany still out, the only change from last week’s victory over Chelsea was in attack, where Carlos Tevez replaced the injured Sergio Aguero.
Paul Lambert named an unchanged team from his side’s narrow defeat at the Emirates last Saturday. Charles N’Zogbia is clearly back in favour, and he started in an attacking midfield role similar to that of Yaya Toure. Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor began in wide positions but, as ever, would look to drift inside and support lone striker Christian Benteke wherever possible.
Villa start brightly and look dangerous from crosses
Before the game even started, it was clear that a huge factor in this contest would be the midfield battle. City like to dominate possession, circulating the ball between their midfield trio and patiently waiting for openings, so it was vital that Delph and Westwood tried to disrupt this short passing and prevent players like Yaya Toure and David Silva enjoying the ball in dangerous positions.
For the first 20 minutes, they did this excellently. The whole team, particularly Delph, aggressively pressed City and prevented them from taking control of the match. Delph was everywhere. Roared on by an encouraged crowd, he harried and cajoled the City midfield in an intense, energetic beginning to the game.
As was expected, Villa’s main attacking threat came from aerial balls into Benteke. This was causing a few problems for City, especially because Matt Lowton was afforded far too much space on the right-hand side. With N’Zogbia naturally drifting left and Weimann trying to support the Belgian centre-forward, the onus was on Lowton to provide the width and as David Silva refused to track him, he did so commendably.
Whilst Agbonlahor and Weimann’s natural inclinations to move off the wing meant that Villa rarely got to the by-line, both Bennett and Lowton were more than happy to swing the ball in from deep. Remember, this had worked so effectively against Everton, where Benteke scored a wonderful header from a Lowton delivery. The Belgian couldn’t repeat the trick here, though, despite threatening a few times in this opening 20 minutes – most notably having a header cleared off the line by Carlos Tevez.
Substitution changes the game
It was a cagey and intriguing start but you couldn’t help but wonder how long Villa could maintain this pressing game for. The turning point came in the 25th minute, when Mancini was forced into a substitution as Jack Rodwell (inevitably) got injured. The natural replacement would have been Gareth Barry, but the Italian manager opted for Edin Dzeko instead, meaning that Tevez and Yaya Toure both came a little deeper. Crucially, Mancini also switched Silva and Milner – the Englishman, far more defensively aware, came onto the left-hand side to keep an eye on the adventurous Lowton. With Lowton restricted, City were no longer pinned back and gradually began to move forward, passing the ball in increasingly dangerous areas.
This season, Mancini has often been criticised for a supposed inability to change games with substitutions – many have pointed to his decision to play 3-5-2 when things aren’t going according to plan – but this tactical switch turned this game in City’s favour.
With Yaya Toure now deeper, City began to control the game and dictate the tempo. Naturally, Villa’s high-intensity pressing game began to slow down as the half wore on and City’s key players were afforded more and more time on the ball as the match neared half-time.
They were beginning to turn the screw but had yet to make any real clear-cut chances until Zabaleta hit the post in the 40th minute. The goal itself was unfortunate for Villa, they couldn’t have accounted for Clark’s slip, but the mistake was ruthlessly capitalised upon by Dzeko and then Tevez. It was a cruel moment for the young defender, but the goal had been coming.
City kill the game
With this lead, City were content to completely take the sting out of the match. The second half was an uneventful one and this will have delighted Mancini. His side kept possession of the ball very well, only moving forward when the opportunity presented itself and always keeping a watchful eye on a possible Villa counter-attack.
Whilst Villa still looked most dangerous from deliveries into the box, Nastasić dealt with Benteke excellently and Lambert’s side were unable to create any good chances in the half. The substitution of Nasri for Tevez is indicative of how City were content to keep the ball and slow the tempo of the game down. The Frenchman dropped far deeper than Tevez and helped City keep their passing rhythm and keep frustrating their tiring opponents.
Despite their encouraging start, it was always unlikely that Villa would be able to keep their high-intensity pressing game up throughout the match. They looked dangerous early on but as City’s midfield began to find more space it only ever looked like Mancini’s men would take all three points. Mancini must be commended for switching Milner and Silva, and the substitution of Dzeko meant that Yaya Toure and Tevez could get more involved in the game. These changes altered the course of the match and the decision to bring on Nasri late in the second half helped them comfortably close it out.