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.

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