Manchester City's Open Start Has Been at Odds with the Pellegrini Way

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Manchester City's Open Start Has Been at Odds with the Pellegrini Way
Stu Forster/Getty Images

Having been the most impressive team on the first weekend of the season, hammering Newcastle United 4-0, Manchester City became the victims of the biggest shock on the second, losing 3-2 at Cardiff City.

In both games, their manager Manuel Pellegrini had them play what was commonly described as a 4-4-2, although the difference between their way of playing and the blockish 4-4-2s that dominated England football in the '80s is so vast as to be almost a case study in how crude numerical designations of formations can be at times.

Edin Dzeko, so disaffected under Roberto Mancini, has looked a new player under Pellegrini. A mobile and muscular presence, he's not quite dominant enough in the air to be categorised as a target-man but enough of a handful that teams are wary of dropping too deep against him and allowing him headers inside the box.

He and Alvaro Negredo will presumably contest that role. Sergio Aguero has played just off him, running onto his flicks and knockdowns but also dropping back and pulling wide to create.

How City lined up vs. Newcastle (graphic by Sam Tighe)

It’s the midfield, though, that is really interesting.

Jesus Navas has been deployed so far on the right, his pace allowing him to start from deep. He should offer penetration against sides who play with a massed defence against City while his acceleration will be a valuable asset on the break against sides who take the game to City.

He is balanced on the left by David Silva, tucked in a playmaking role, almost like an old-fashioned inside-left. His interactions with Aguero have already shown promise, and his position should open up the flank for the left-back to overlap.

Michael Steele/Getty Images

That, really, is the one slight imbalance on the City system: It would be much better for them if their more attacking full-back was left-sided and could overlap Silva, with the right-back tucking in to provide cover at the back as Navas surges from deep. As it is, Pablo Zabaleta is much more attacking-minded than Gael Clichy.

Against Newcastle, Zabaleta was still able to overlap as Navas looked to go infield, but that is not a natural relationship.

The bigger concern for City, though, is the pairing at the back of midfield.

Against Newcastle, Yaya Toure and Fernandinho worked well together, one pushing forward while the other sat deeper. Against Cardiff, though, where they came under more pressure, there were times when they left the back four a little exposed—something that was all the more problematic because injuries to Matija Nastasic and Vincent Kompany had left Javi Garcia, naturally a midfielder, playing at centre-back.

A potentially more stable setup for Pellegrini (graphic by Sam Tighe)

It’s not necessarily a major issue, and it was basic defending from corners rather than anything else that was the reason City lost—a man-marking system breaking down first because of Joe Hart flapping and then because of confusion between Zabaleta and Garcia (it might also be said that Joleon Lescott’s positioning for the first goal was questionable).

It may be that Fernandinho and Toure can achieve an understanding in a way that Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard never quite did for England, but that is certainly an area opposing teams may think City can be exploited.

Although Pellegrini has shown a clear preference throughout his career for variants of a 4-4-2, it may be that in key Champions League games or against major Premier League teams, he opts to withdraw a central forward and play a third man—Gareth Barry, if he stays at the club, Jack Rodwell or Garcia when he is relieved of defensive duties—at the back of midfield.

They may have been the entertainers so far, their two games yielding nine goals, but that is not the usual Pellegrini way. A more conservative and consistent approach will probably soon emerge.

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