Manchester City took a giant step toward another Premier League title on Wednesday night when they eventually overcame a resilient and defensively stout Aston Villa side to win 4-0.
The result takes City two points clear at the top of the Premier League table heading into the final weekend of the season, when they play West Ham United. A draw in that match will clinch the title, assuming Liverpool don't put a double-figures tally past Newcastle United.
It took City more than an hour to break down Villa's line of defenders, but they went on to win easily, showing their title rivals the importance of having not only quality on the pitch, but the patience and tolerance to keep on with the game plan in the face of tough opposition.
Two weeks ago when Liverpool's title bid first stuttered, they came up against what was effectively a nine-man Chelsea defence that they could not penetrate.
Very early on in the Man City-Aston Villa game, it was apparent that the new league leaders were going to face a similar test of resolve and patience, as Villa came with a back five, three midfielders in front to protect and two runners to close out spaces on the flanks who would look to counter when possible.
Of course, it would be fair to point out that Chelsea's defensive record—and their actual defenders, too—is rather better than Villa's, but a well-drilled and packed defence is still extremely difficult to break down, so the point remains.
Villa worked extremely hard to close down spaces in front of and between the centre-backs, with the midfielders dropping back into the penalty area with a deep defensive line when they came under pressure, though Ron Vlaar ensured his defence pushed up at every opportunity when Villa had cleared the ball.
Zabaleta's Constant Runs
A feature of Manchester City's approach to breaking down Aston Villa was the constant driving runs down the channels by both full-backs.
Aleksander Kolarov on the left and, in particular, Pablo Zabaleta on the right were denied the room to receive the ball on multiple occasions by the covering outside centre-back, but they persisted in their task and eventually managed to find a number of low passes toward the six-yard box.
City didn't turn to constant shots from outside the penalty area. The full-backs knew that, with Edin Dzeko the lone target against three aerially proficient centre-backs, high crosses were not likely to be effective, so they persisted with probing, passing and pressing to open up Villa with good movement and clever through balls.
At half-time, City had enjoyed 75 percent possession, per Sky Sports' live feed. They kept up that intent to attack with more patient possession after the break, despite being frustrated and it still 0-0 at that point.
City's first two goals ultimately came from the same routes that they had been trying to take from the first minutes of the game—freeing the marauding full-back down the channel, a low ball to the near post and an opportunistic, close-range finish.
Options to Change
It's worth noting that Manchester City had the ability to change things around when the scoreline was still 0-0, something Liverpool perhaps did not have. When certain players deviated from the game plan against Chelsea, or indeed against Crystal Palace, the Reds didn't have the options on the subs' bench.
This shouldn't be used as an excuse by Liverpool, nor as a stick to beat City with. They've built this squad for exactly this purpose: to change games to win them and, thus, win titles.
Stevan Jovetic's arrival gave City much more movement centrally, not to mention a direct goal threat, while Fernandinho and Alvaro Negredo came off the bench once the game was won.
Because of his injuries, it's been forgotten just how good a player Jovetic is. Certainly has the ability to be a big deal in City's future.— Seb (@premleagueowl) May 7, 2014
This incredible depth has taken City to within touching distance of their second league title in three seasons, and manager Manuel Pellegrini deserves great credit not just for organising the ways in which City use the ball in the final third, but for also instilling a trust in his players that his tactics will, eventually, find a way through.
Four goals and three points for City, two more strikes for Dzeko and now just one more game to get through to wrest back the title.