@ElMagoBlog on a coach exposed.
Klopp’s 4-1 demolition of Pellegrini’s Manchester City on Saturday evening sent shockwaves through the Premier League. The significance of the result should not be under-estimated. It was City’s biggest home defeat in the league since Thierry Henry turned Richard Dunne to dust in a 5-1 demolition in February 2003. That is over five years before City’s lucrative takeover and even a year before they even moved into their current Eastlands home. For the very young City supporter sat next to me it was a first chastising experience of how brutal football can be. His stunned reaction said it all. So mine did mine.
I warn you. What follows is a rant.
Jurgen Klopp’s side were insatiable, particularly in the first 30 minutes, and rightly the new manager deserves credit for that. However, rationality should be stressed. As good as Klopp’s side were, Pellegrini’s City were as far down the other end of the quality spectrum as it is possible to go. It was abysmal. Whist Klopp’s pressing game was a joy to watch, even for the non-neutral, it was not anything unique. Many teams play a high-tempo pressing game. As a City supporter what I found most disconcerting was the unforced errors strewn throughout my team. Simple passes were played behind team-mates, or even worse, straight out of play. There was little or no communication. At 3-1, short free-kicks were constantly taken when the ball needed to be played into the danger zone. Corners were woeful and unplanned. There was no leadership, no game plan. They were a team playing without a purpose or identity. The reality is most teams with anything about them would have fancied beating City on Saturday. The credit goes to Klopp for despatching them as clinically and brutally as he did.
There are several hypotheses for City’s showing. There are questions over the decision to play Sagna and, in particular, Mangala after the emotionally taxing rollercoaster they would have endured on international duty. Vincent Kompany was ruled out after another embarrassing injury debacle between City and the Belgian national team. Sterling and De Bruyne appeared jaded, whilst Otamendi and Fernadinho were left out after returning from South America. Aguero was evidently still without match fitness and deputy Bony was ruled out altogether. In contrast Klopp had enjoyed the benefit of having Coutinho, Firmino, Moreno and Lucas around for two weeks. It is no surprise they formed the bedrock of everything positive they did. Any suggestion Milner was injured for England’s game versus France lacks any substance given his 90 minutes yesterday. These are not excuses. Other teams cope. City have previously coped too. They are, nonetheless, factors which influenced the intensity the two sides played at. However, again the credit goes to Klopp for identifying these weaknesses and methodically and systematically exploiting them.
Although every team has bad days at the office the most concerning thing for City supporters is they are becoming recurrent under Pellegrini, particularly this season. Not just results, but importantly the manner of some performances. Klopp is not football’s Einstein. Pochettino’s Spurs had already masterminded a similar 4-1 victory over City this season in the same way, with Dier and Alli ruthlessly pressing City off the ball and Kane, Lamela and Erikson terrorising an aged Demichelis. Bilic’s West Ham also pressed City out of the game and bullied Mangala. Juventus did too. Arsenal were just one team who did the same in the last unsuccessful season. Comparing the ultra-drilled and driven nature of Klopp’s side yesterday to the lethargic, rudderless and chaotic approach of City suggests the problems are much deeper than a few jaded internationals. Manuel Pellegrini has lost City’s footballing identity.
Liverpool played exactly as you would expect a Klopp side to play. City supporters know because they witnessed his Borussia Dortmund side play in an almost identical manner three years previous. This time Firmino, Coutinho and Lallana adopted the attacking roles of Lewandowski, Gotze and Reus, and the midfield trio of Can, Milner and Lucas played the roles of Bender, Gundogan and Blaszczykowski. The fact the players can be changed but the quality of the performance remains the same highlights that Klopp has a footballing identity. The only reason City escaped with a draw in their first encounter was courtesy of a virtuoso display by Joe Hart and ridiculous penalty taking ability of Mario Balotelli.
So what is, or was, City’s footballing identify? The club’s tumultuous history meant that no manager had ever really had a chance to enforce one since the successful era of Mercer and Allison. That was until Roberto Mancini marched into Manchester City, and into the fan’s hearts. Mancini did three things all successful managers do. Firstly, he developed a formation and style of play which worked consistently; a goalkeeper, solid back four, two central midfielders (one of which had licence to go forward), two playmakers sitting wide behind the strikers (very important) and two forwards. Possession-retention and defending from the front were expected as a minimum requirement. Second, Mancini filled as many positions with players who had the ability and character to push City to the next level. It wasn’t an indisputable starting XI, but it had five or six key players; Hart, Zabaleta, Kompany, Barry, de Jong, Yaya Toure, Silva and latterly Nasri and Aguero. Everything Mancini did revolved around these players and getting them to perform their best in a settled formation. All successful sides do the same; Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Arsenal’s Invincibles and so forth. Granted Mancini occasionally veered off into weird experiments with double full-backs, three at the back and so on. But invariably he knew what worked. Finally, Mancini had a ‘Plan B’ which was about as predictable as the postman. Take off a forward, put on a holding midfielder and push Yaya Toure forward. Just as with the proverbial postman – it delivered more often than not. He also had a plan C called ‘Mario Balotelli’, although this was more akin to the football equivalent of pressing the big red nuclear button. This was our identity.
I’m not saying Mancini was perfect. His approaches failed in Europe, he was outclassed by Klopp’s Dortmund and by the end of his tenure he had fallen out with most key players. He was, however, sacked for much less than Pellegrini did last season. However, the fact that the formation and key players Mancini assembled still underpin City’s best XI says something about the footballing identity he left. This identity is also responsible for why Pellegrini had a fairly comfortable start and the success he achieved in his first season. It’s like when you move into a new house. You live with what is there for for a while before making changes. Pellegrini does deserve some credit for replacing Barry with Fernandinho, adding Negredo as a rotation option, and Navas to replace Adam Johnson. Importantly, however, he stuck with the identity, formation and players. Look at the landmark results from the double-winning season (Newcastle 4-0 at home; 4-1 United home; 3-1 Everton home; Tottenham 6-0 home; Arsenal 6-3 home; Palace 2-0 away; 3-0 United away; 3-2 Everton away). Look at the formations, look at the key players. There is a pattern, a consistency, an identity.
An identity is important for several reasons. First the players always know what they are doing, both individually and as a group. This applies for when things are going well and also when they aren’t. There is a reason why fans will refer to ‘The Barry role’ or ‘The Silva role’. These are integral positions to how the team play. This is useful because if, for any reason, you need to rotate the squad then the players coming in have a clear idea on exactly what they need to do. Refer back to Klopp. He successfully transferred the tactics from Dortmund to Liverpool in only a matter of weeks. Many were surprised at the absence of Benteke and Ibe from the starting line-up. It didn’t matter as Firmino and Lallana were ready and capable to play the respective roles. City’s previous identity also did this as utility players like Milner who, although he didn’t have the ability of a Silva, played the same role when asked with military precision. Javi Garcia adapted to the Barry role. Negredo played the Dzeko role with aplomb for six months. Micah Richards and Gael Clichy interchanged fullback duties with Kolarov and Zabaleta with ease. A footballing identity is also important for transfers and youth development. If you have a successful formation and style you buy to complement that, or develop players who do.
Slowly, however, Pellegrini has dismantled the identity that provided him so much early success. This is evident through some of his recruitment. Some are fine. Otamendi looks solid, Fernandinho is underrated, De Bruyne looks a world-class playmaker and Navas has contributed well. On the other hand, although Raheem Sterling is a phenomenal talent, where does he fit into City’s footballing identity? Will he offer the same penetration, possession-retention and end-product as Silva and Nasri? He only offers a fraction of the defensive endeavour. The money would have been better spent on Pogba as a successor to Yaya Toure, or Isco as a successor for Silva. Delph is a good player who offers shades of Barry and Yaya combined, but the reality is he excels at neither. Jovetic was the antithesis of possession and penetration football. Mangala looks less secure than Savic, which is the worse insult I could pay to a defender. Bony does not appear an upgrade on Dzeko. Why the crucial home-grown position of second choice keeper is being taken by an aged and average Argentine is beyond comprehension. Lopes deserved a better opportunity. Denayer deserved a squad place ahead of the aged Demichelis or Mangala. Javi Garcia had just started to establish himself and Tevez clearly had Champions League quality. Three rankle more than most. Pellegrini failed to convince Milner to stay. He treated Micah Richards like rubbish before letting him go for nothing. I wouldn’t mind so much if there was a clear succession pathway for Maffeo, but there isn’t. The one that rankles most is Nastastic. Only 20 years old and named the City’s young player of the year, Matija had the world at his feet. Two mistakes against Aston Villa and Chelsea and Pellegrini exiled him for good without explanation, save for tenuous reference to a mystery injury. That we replaced him with Mangala for £32 million is laughable.
Pellegrini has also tinkered with a settled and successful formation and style of play. In many ways the failings of his adapted system have been disguised by results. The warning signs were there when he started to play with only one striker, leaving out either Dzeko or Negredo, and isolating Aguero, despite the combination of two strikers leading to such great success. He has been fortunate that the breath-taking ability of the little Argentine has masked how isolated he has been. He hasn’t been so lucky in the stalemates with Manchester United and Aston Villa when Bony has looked so isolated that I have been concerned he may contact The Samaritans. I am not saying City should always play with two up top (Barcelona, I’m looking at you). We can’t deny, however, it’s a decent bread and butter approach for domestic football.
The defeats to Liverpool, West Ham and Spurs also have in common that Pellegrini played three wingers behind the striker (Navas, De Bruyne and Sterling). Whilst the three attackers are designed to offer maximum penetration, it leaves the midfielders behind startlingly exposed and men light when possession is lost. The three wingers also struggle to hold up the ball and allow Yaya Toure and the fullbacks to get involved in the attack. Being honest, in the absence of Silva, only De Bruyne seems to know what he is supposed to be doing. This was most evident in the two games against Sevilla. In the first game, Pellegrini played the three wingers of Sterling, Navas and De Bruyne. As a result the turn-over of possession was high, Sevilla saw a lot of the ball (55%), and City were fortunate the quality of De Bruyne bailed them out with an injury time winner. Fast-forward to the away game and Pellegrini elects to play just two of the three, leaving De Bruyne on the bench, adding Fernando to midfielder and pushing Yaya further forward to be conventional attacking midfielder. The results were astoundingly good. Bony was supported, the midfield dominant, the full-backs rampant and Sterling effective. That is no reflection on the personnel, but it certainly is on the system. So why then revert back to the formation from the first leg?
I could go on.
It all came to a head in the game against Klopp’s side. It was a perfect storm. The formation and team selection had many scratching their heads. The decision to play so openly against a packed Liverpool midfield was illogical given it had been ineffective against similar opposition. Aguero was isolated, the three wingers again failed to hold the ball up and bring others into play. Navas and Sterling seemed so confused about whether they were supposed to be attacking or defending they ultimately did neither effectively. The decision to bench the best available defender and holding midfielder proved to be a big mistake. There was no sound game plan. By 3-0 down there was just blind panic. No resilience, no fight, no identity. Even when changes were made the players entered into such a chaotic system that all Delph and Fernandinho could do was charge about putting out fires. All the while Liverpool continued to probe and attack in a methodical and organised manner. It was also alarming that, Otamendi and Fernandinho aside, Klopp’s bench also offered far more promise than City’s. The fact Pellegrini said after the game he would pick the same team over again just underlines why City are experiencing the same problems over again too. If this is Pellegrini’s idea of a footballing identity then I am worried.
All is not lost. But it is confused. City have played some fantastic football under Pellegrini. But he needs to get back to what serves us best; possession-based, aggressive and ruthless football, in a settled and effective formation. Turin on Wednesday, which was seemingly a nice jolly for an already-qualified City, suddenly becomes very important. The players must shoulder some blame too. Sterling, De Bruyne, Bony, Mangala, Navas, Manuel – time to step up.
Over to you boys,
El Mago, out.