Manuel Pellegrini has been widely chastised for his tactical naivety this season. In the days gone by with Villarreal and Malaga, he was hailed as a master tactician. The ‘engineer’ moniker tagged to him was meant as a tribute to his degree in engineering, but also to his intelligence and ability to read the tactical side of the game so well. But now he is said to be naive.
With his previous sides, Pellegrini’s starting 4-4-2 was quite fluid, and when they didn’t have the ball, someone would drop into the middle to help the central midfielders defend. This would either be the wingers or the second striker. Pellegrini always defended with more than just his central midfield pairing in the middle of the pitch.
And this is what the pundits are asking him to do now – add more men into the middle to compete with other teams who use a midfield three.
But it’s not as if a 4-4-2 has never won the Champions League. And even last season, one of Europe’s best sides played 4-4-2 a lot of the time.
Diego Simeone set his Atletico Madrid team up in a 4-4-2 and got them to press the opposition relentlessly. They beat Barcelona by not giving them space when they got the ball, not giving Xavi, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta time to pick passes so easily. And we all know what can happen when those three pick passes easily.
But City are not a team that can be set up in a pressing system. Simeone imposes something like a military discipline in his team. It’s hard to imagine Silva, Aguero, Nasri et al flourishing in such a rigid system.
In the league, City do best when they build up a head of steam. When they are performing at their peak and once they get a goal, the opposition just can’t deal with the power of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho. City are a confidence side, and their league form shows that. When they get going, they are hard to stop, when they are off the boil, they stutter.
It is not quite the same in the Champions League, however, and City need to adapt. But would be wrong to say that Pellegrini doesn’t know this.
The way they play in the league is a much more attacking set-up than it is in the Champions League, and against Barcelona in the first leg two weeks ago, we didn’t see an expansive, free flowing City like we did only a few days later against Liverpool; we saw a defensive set up instead.
City can still beat Barcelona, and they can still catch Chelsea playing the same way.
This is a different Barcelona than we’ve seen in previous seasons. Many people have said that, but they mean it in a negative way, they mean that Barca are weaker. Whether they are or not is a discussion for a different day, but the addition of Ivan Rakitic and Luis Suarez does allow Barcelona to be more direct in possession, something they’ve never been able to do previously.
Rakitic looks to go forward more than Iniesta and Busquets. That is, he looks to pass forward, try through balls and get into shooting positions. And with Suarez up front, Barcelona have a real striker that will also look to be more direct, looking to play a killer ball or shoot rather than pass back to the midfield or defence.
This makes them less susceptible to pressing. When they are hassled, they can simply go into Suarez’s feet. They are still supremely quick with their passes, but what this boils down to is that Suarez can punish you more instantly than the preferred ‘death by a thousand cuts’ method of Xavi and Iniesta, even though they still have that in their locker.
So City needed to stifle Barca and not let them do this. And the 4-4-2 was the perfect way to do it. With no third midfielder, City just lined up in ‘banks-of-four’ and stopped Barca from going direct, and then had two men up front to do more than just counter when they had the ball. The two men could protect possession and bring Silva and Nasri into the game.
This happened in the first half, but Barca’s first goal had an element of luck, and their second was a mistake from Fernando. The Brazilian left his position in front of Kompany and in such a rigid 4-4-2 you can’t do that because it left Kompany exposed. The captain made a rash tackle to try and cover and as a result he was himself left out of position, and Barca’s goal was inevitable.
In the second half, City were much more accomplished in how they used their system, had a host of chances early on, got a goal to come back into the tie, and were dangerous up until Gael Clichy was sent off.
Against Barca, City need a repeat performance of their second half in order to beat Barcelona. They’ll need to be more disciplined than they were in the first leg, and not make mistakes like Fernando’s or Vincent Kompany’s, but the basic game plan is the right one.
In the league, it’s a different story for City though. Their 4-4-2 isn’t as defensive as they made it look against Barca in the first leg, and will probably make it in the second. They attack with Toure as well as the wingers, and they are, at times, exposed at the back.
But when city build up a head of steam they can be unstoppable. It doesn’t matter that they lack a third man in the middle, they have more than enough firepower with Toure and Fernandinho to overpower most three-man midfields.
This is why the domestic 4-4-2 is different. City will have enough possession not to have to line up defensively and stifle them. They can just overpower the opposition.
If they can build up a head of steam after their week off, City can gain momentum. And like a boulder rolling downhill, they are very difficult to stop when they hit top speed. It will be a wonderful feat if City can stay in the Champions League next week and track down Chelsea in the league, but it isn’t impossible for a squad as good as theirs. Yet in order to gain this momentum in both competitions, City need to be good in both defence and attack, and Pellegrini’s 4-4-2 will help.