Put it this way: When Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini rotates his squad, he leaves no doubt. Against Sunderland, though, Pellegrini's commitment to keeping his side fresh proved very costly.
Some turnover in the starting XI was to be expected. City are coping with a number of injuries to first-choice players and yet another international break would follow City's trip to Sunderland.
Additionally, City had just spilled their figurative bucket in qualifying for the round of 16 in the Champions League against CSKA Moscow earlier in the week. There is only so much you can ask from your regulars.
Yeah, but still.
City's XI against Sunderland was not so much a "who's who" as a "Who are these guys?" The club's Twitter feed revealed the starters:
City's entire back line consisted of reserves. As long as Vincent Kompany's convalescence continues, Pellegrini will be forced to cobble his defense together from the best of what's around.
However, this was kind of ridiculous.
The Sunderland goal resulted from some combination of miscommunication and slapstick scrambling between James Milner and Martin Demichelis, which sprung Phil Bardsley for an easy finish.
Micah Richards, who wants at least a share of the time at right-back for City, was not even in the picture as the ball rippled the net behind Costel Pantilimon.
In the midfield, injuries to David Silva and Fernandinho compelled Pellegrini to choose Javi Garcia and Milner to start.
Milner was more than capable of giving City the defensive industry Fernandinho normally provides, but City had to compensate for the magic and invention lost from Silva's absence through a sum of smaller parts.
That meant allowing Aleksandar Kolarov to cheat forward from left-back for much of the day. It meant giving Nasri increased playmaking responsibility. It meant launching hopeful crosses in from the wings in lieu of more incisive, defense-shredding passing play.
As a result, City's prolific striking tandem of Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo received intermittent and insufficient service for much of the match.
After heading to the changing room trailing, Pellegrini had ample reason to make substitutions. Garcia was on a yellow card and had been spectacularly ineffective. Toure looked gassed. Other than one good shot, Milner had done little to impact the play.
And given the absence of healthy defensive reserves, Pellegrini's only real substituting options were all in the midfield anyway.
It was thus no surprise to see Jesus Navas replace Garcia. Whether Navas should have started the match—and whether Garcia should start any more going forward—should be up for debate.
About 25 minutes later, still chasing Bardsley's marker, Pellegrini put Pablo Zabaleta on for Richards and Edin Dzeko on for Negredo. These changes rang of a desperate manager hoping to erase earlier errors with fresh legs and luck.
It didn't work.
At halftime of the telecast of this match on NBC Sports Network, studio analyst Robbie Earle aptly noted the deficiency in Pellegrini's tactics (expressed through his XI):
Before the ball was kicked I just wondered whether Manuel Pellegrini would understand the 38 challenges that the Barclays Premier League throws up, especially away from home. It's okay winning the Manchester derby and being good on those days—away at Villa, away at Sunderland, away at Cardiff, you've got to win those games too if you're going to win the title.
Facing a relegation-threatened side, City eschewed a giftwrapped chance to right their hideous road record and secure three vital points. In fact, they took none.
In a long season, there are occasionally times when a side has to take a step back in the hope of taking two steps forward later.
With his XI against Sunderland, though, Pellegrini effectively took three or four steps back, hamstringing his club's chance to win before the match even began.
As a result, a side that has Premier League and Champions League aspirations is so far back in the table through 11 matches that not even its Champions League berth is all that secure.
And it must be said: If Roberto Mancini were still at the controls, he would be crucified for the XI that took the pitch against Sunderland.
Pellegrini's honeymoon may finally be over.
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