Thursday, February 26, 2015

Positives for Pellegrini

There's a lot of hate on the internet these days. Okay, there's pretty much always been a lot of hate on the internet, but the amount of it directed at Manuel Pellegrini is more than usual after City lost to Barcelona on Tuesday. "Pellegrini Gets Tactics Wrong as Barcelona Triumph in Manchester" blared the headline of Miguel Delaney at Whoscored, who went on to describe the "total failure of Pellegrini's approach" and his "staggering tactical naivety". John Brewin also commented that playing 4-4-2 against Barca "was something of a suicide mission".

Come on people. Pellegrini can't legislate for the ball ricocheting off of Kompany right into Suarez's lap on the first goal. He can't control the refs showing a weak yellow to Clichy on his first challenge, or giving him a deserved second yellow for a completely unnecessary challenge on Alves. He can't make Dzeko take the ball on his chest and smash in a first goal early in the second half. He can't put slightly more curve on Aguero's bending effort. He can't make Zabaleta not attempt a foolish challenge on Messi in the box, giving away the penalty that should have finished the game. Those aren't on him. That's where City lost the game.

Most of the commentary identifies two related "flaws" in Pellegrini's gameplan: ceding possession to Barcelona and playing with two strikers. As I commented prior to the game, I thought it made sense to play on the counter as we were not going to out-possess Barca. In that respect, I was glad Pellegrini didn't try to do that and play 5 mids. I also think playing two up top with Dzeko alongside Aguero was a good move, as Aguero (special though he is) can't hold the ball up the way Dzeko can, which is particularly important when playing on the counter (side note: I loved the way Delaney complained that Dzeko didn't help City win the aerial battle, only to have a commenter note he won the most aerial duels in the game). I was surprised about Fernandinho not starting alongside Fernando (I would have replaced Nasri with him and moved Milner out wide), but I don't think it would have altered the game dramatically.

And the results were not that bad. Despite Barca supposedly dominating possession, they only managed 52% in the first half. Their final possession number of 62% is inflated by the time City spent with 10 men. Not counting the penalty attempt (and the subsequent wild header by Messi), City had one fewer shot and one fewer shot on target. Barca did have a lot of dribbles, but several were their centerbacks wandering aimlessly into the midfield. The only area City were obviously deficient was the one no one was talking about: their attack was conspicuously absent in the first half, managing just one shot on target. Misplayed passes and a lack of urgency gave the ball back to Barca too often and too easy. Still, they picked it up in the second half, and it would have been very interesting to see how the game would have gone with a full complement of players.

So why were the reviews so harsh? For one, I think there is still a lot of City hate out there. It's to be expected really, I mean who likes the nouveau riche? I can guarantee if City had gone with 5 mids, there would have been complaints about City not "going for it", and God forbid they try a 3-5-2. It's telling that most times in the Premier League an underdog will get plaudits for going with two up top, as Burnley did when they visited City, but Pellegrini naming two strikers to face one of the best clubs in the world is suicidal, apparently. This goes back to a big problem in football commentary. So much of it assumes that the result was preordained, and the respective managers and players solely responsible for the outcome. That is total bullshit. Luck is a big factor, and the way the ball bounces can determine a tie, sometimes quite literally.

The other thing I think no one is noticing is that there's more to the season than this one game; it doesn't exist in a vacuum. People questioned Fernandinho not starting, but his spot was filled by Milner, whose contract has been the subject of media scrutiny for some time. Part of Milner's demands to stay at the club are more game time and his preferred position is central midfield, where he is rarely deployed. Playing him in that spot could well have been part of Pellegrini's plan to show how much he values Milner and wants him to stay. Similarly, Dzeko would have made more sense as a lone striker than Aguero, but you can't leave Aguero out of the team in the form he's in. Personally, I'd rather keep Milner here and Aguero happy than try and (likely fail) to stop Barca's midfield controlling possession.

All in all Barca deserved their win. City made too many mistakes, as David Mooney points out, and thankfully weren't punished on all of them. But City didn't play that badly, and Pellegrini wasn't the one primarily responsible for the loss. In his article, Delaney comments that Pellegrini said he was happy with his formation choice and yet looked dejected at the defeat, and doesn't understand how this could be the case. Perhaps it's because the players let him down and not the formation.

Monday, February 23, 2015

City vs. Barcelona

While I would be the first to admit that I prefer the Premier League to the Champions League, it's hard not to get excited for games like this. This is the sort of game that was unthinkable even 10 years ago, a clash with one of the heavyweights of world football. It's important to just appreciate that, and to know that no matter how City play this is still an incredible time for the club.

Because it will be tough for City to get something out of this game.

I think the major key of the game is this: can City hit them on the break? Both teams are known for their passing and attack-minded football. But let's be real: you can't out-possess Barcelona. Even though they are not the prime side of a few years ago, they are still averaging 62% possession in La Liga (and 60% in the Champions League). City have managed 60% in the Premier League (tops in England), but only 51% against the tougher competition of the Champions League. With Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta, and Messi, Barca are only going to give the ball away so many times, and I feel that City will have to settle for Barca having more of the ball.

Given that an opponent has had the ball more than City in just three games all season, you would think this might not work in City's favor. But a strange thing happens to City's results when you filter by time of possession: the worse City are at keeping the ball, the better they perform. In fact, they have won all six of their Premier League games when they averaged less than 55% possession. And it's not just in the PL either, City have a 2-0-1 record in the Champions League when out-possessed and a 0-2-1 record when winning the possession battle.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but I think it makes perfect sense given how City have looked this year. If you had to describe the area City is weakest, it's on the counter-attack. The Stoke game early in the year was the clearest example this, when Diouf ran practically the entire field to put the ball through Hart's legs. Chelsea also gave us problems as a counter-attacking team, and even in the 2-2 draw with Arsenal both their goals were a direct result of turnovers leading to counter-attacks. Toure is not quick (though he can certainly attain a high top speed), Fernando isn't any quicker, and Fernandinho may be the worst tackler in transition since Roger Johnson. It's very easy to bypass our midfield on the counter, and then you're just dealing with Old Man Demichelis (assuming he plays, he didn't start at the weekend so I think Manuel was resting him for this game unfortunately) and Kompany. Even though we don't do so very often, playing with a more counter-attacking style lets our defenders stay in front of the ball, and by doing so reduces our opponents' goal threat significantly.

The problem for Barca is that since they are a possession-based team, they aren't ideally equipped to take advantage of our biggest weakness. That's not to say they're incapable of breaking down our defense; I don't think you could say that about any team. They will have to try to pass through us though, and with two screeners in the Fernand brothers in front of the back four, City should be able to force the ball wide. Barca don't have a lot of height, so dealing with crosses (our other Achilles heel) won't be a big issue, and we can hopefully contain their attack.

The question is, will Manuel set us up to play on the counter, rather than attempt to dominate possession? It goes against his philosophy, but I think it would be naive to try and beat Barca at their own game. When we win the ball, we should look to break quickly and not rely on throwing numbers forward in attack. City have after all produced some pretty brilliant counter-attacking goals in recent seasons; here's hoping we can get a few against Barca.