Where now for Manchester City? Runners up in the Community Shield, out of both domestic cups in the fourth round, seemingly out of the title race, and now out of the Champions League at the hands of a Barcelona side who rarely looked troubled by City’s high earning stars.
The future looks bleak for their manager, but if the target of five trophies in five years is to be believed, then he just might be given the chance to turn things around. How he goes about doing that, in the unlikely event he’s be given this chance, could define his tenure at City, and indeed in Europe.
Since Sheikh Mansour went to Spain in his Lamborghini, and brought back a manager, Manuel Pellegrini, City have been on a rollercoaster ride which, on the face of it, appears to be coming to an end.
The Chilean gets nowhere near enough credit for the league championship and League Cup double he achieved in his first season at the club, and whilst all eyes were on Suarez, Sturridge, and Sterling down at the other end of the M62, Pellegrini was adding to his collection of honours.
With songs about Steven Gerrard and Demba Ba being sung by sets of fans who weren’t affected by these events in any way, you’d think England was full of closet Chelsea fans and that it was Jose Mourinho’s men who took the title in the 2013/14 season. But Chelsea finished third, and it was Pellegrini, not Mourinho, who took the Premier League trophy, in his first season at Manchester City.
Pellegrini achieved this success by applying the styles of play he’s been successful with throughout his career. Whether this be the 4-2-2-2 which becomes a 4-4-2, or the 4-2-2-2 which becomes a 4-2-3-1; the general blueprint remains the same.
The City manager once said that “there’s no such thing as a perfect system, and telephone numbers like 4-4-2, 4-2-2-2 aren’t of importance”. The malleability of his favoured 4-2-2-2 formation is one of the most important aspects of his philosophy.
These various tactical systems have been the subject of much criticism in recent months, as it now appears that Chelsea will stroll to the league title unopposed by the current holders. However, these are the same tactics which have brought success in the past, and variations on these tactics could turn things around in the future.
It’s all about the pairings. From the forward pair to the deep lying midfielders, the 4-2-2-2 is evident in most set ups, even if the team appear to be playing a different shape. In the 4-2-3-1 one of the two forwards is sacrificed for an extra midfielder, as the side look to dominate even against teams who like to hog the possession themselves. However, one of the attacking midfield three will be nominated as an extra forward to work with the striker, as David Silva often was during their game in Barcelona.
In the other formation which looks like a 4-4-2 on the face of it, the wide midfielders will often become central attacking midfielders when the team have the ball, forming a 4-2-2-2 more often than not.
The exception to this “rule of the pairs” occurred when Pellegrini accommodated a lone Juan Román Riquelme behind a front two during his time at Villarreal. This brought the best out of the Argentine play-maker, and any attempt to do this is to be lauded, as Riquelme didn’t need just one partner as he already had nine of them.
Even in this set-up, one of the deep midfield three would naturally roam forward to support Riquelme, which naturally lead to the return to a 4-2-2-2, and possibly supports Pellegrini’s stance that the numbers are not important!
One of the more interesting versions of the system is the asymmetric formation where one of the forwards or midfielders play on the wing. At Manchester City either Jesus Navas or James Milner have been used to stretch the play, and even if these players don’t have the best of games, they give others room to play and help stretch defenders out of position.
Having a wide player on the right also offers support to Pablo Zabaleta, and gives the opposition more trouble on this side, which in turn leaves the left back free to exploit space on the opposite flank. Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolorov racked up 13 assists between them last season, but so far this season the full backs Kolarov and Zabaleta, plus Gael Clichy, only have 7.
It’s around this point that the age-old battle of personnel versus tactics rears its head. In the home leg of the last-16 tie against Barcelona in the Champions League, Pellegrini got his 4-2-2-2 wrong due to both the shape and the personnel in it.
Brazilian defensive midfielder Fernando Reges was widely criticised for his performance, but his lack of support in the centre of the park against Barcelona’s packed midfield left him exposed. James Milner was deployed in a central midfield position which he’s never looked totally comfortable in, and David Silva and Samir Nasri operated in limbo between the centre of the park and the final third.
Lessons weren’t learnt, as City lined up in the same formation against Liverpool but with slight personnel changes, including Fernandinho and Yaya Touré coming into the side as the deeper midfield pair. The side struggled for width again, and slumped to a 2-1 defeat at Anfield despite a precisely worked team goal finished off by Edin Dzeko.
It might be harsh to judge City on their games against Barcelona, but these are the heights which the heavily bankrolled club are aiming for. Indeed, they took a lot of inspiration from the Barcelona way of doing things, going as far as as appointing the former Barca sporting director Txiki Begiristain, but so fair the club haven’t come close to replicating the Catalan giants. Replicating Barcelona seems nice in theory, but is almost impossible in practice, just ask Roman Abramovic.
What isn’t harsh is judging City on games like their recent defeat away at Burnley; games which the defending champions should be looking to ease through if they’re to have any chance of retaining their crown. Perhaps the players underestimated Sean Dyche’s well organised Lancastrians, but the team look sluggish, and can’t seem to grind out results when the trio of David Silva, Sergio Aguero, and Yaya Touré aren’t firing on all cylinders.
Losing to Barcelona and finishing runners up in the league should hardly be considered a crisis. However, if the club get dragged into a challenge for the top four, as opposed to simply trying to catch Chelsea, then it’ll probably be Pellegrini who’s shown the exit door. Despite some questionable recruitment after their championship win last season, Txiki Begiristain will probably be kept on in the hope that the club can somehow acquire the services of Pep Guardiola.
It’s just a shame that it looks like Pellegrini, should he leave, will be judged on his perceived failure, rather than his success.