Why Manuel Pellegrini Is Not to Blame as Barcelona Edge Manchester City

Jonathan Wilson@@jonawilsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 19, 2014


Football is a game that demands answers.

A team wins a game, so the manager must have got it right. A team loses a game, so the manager must be to blame: what did he get wrong?

Explanations are always being found to suit the result, no matter how the game went, a process the Spanish coach Juanma Lillo, now in charge of Millonarios in Colombia, says makes us "prophets of the past."

The critics were out in force after Manchester City's 2-0 defeat to Barcelona on Tuesday, blaming Manuel Pellegrini.

There were sneers that City had only 32 percent of the ball, as per WhoScored?, that they'd played two full-backs on the left and that they hadn't steamrollered Barca as they had other teams at the Etihad this season.

But Barca aren't Norwich or West Ham. They're not even Tottenham or Arsenal. Against Barca you have to take special measures, just as Bayern Munich did in hammering them in the semi-final last season— when they beat them 4-0 at the Allianz Arena, Bayern had only 34 percent possession.

Possession is a measure of how much you have the ball, nothing more, nothing less—it may shed light on other issues, but it is not in itself a measure of who is having the better game.

The fact is that City, although sloppy at times in possession—playing a team like Barca, of course, increases the pressure when you have the ball because the consequences of losing it are so great—played pretty well until Martin Demichelis was sent off.

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There was a lot of criticism of him and it's true that his distribution was, by and large, poor. But he handled Lionel Messi superbly, proactively hunting the ball as it was played into his feet, knowing Vincent Kompany was behind him and Fernandinho was usually in position to cover.

Kolarov blocks Alves, Demichelis-Kompany play stopper-sweeper on Messi.
Kolarov blocks Alves, Demichelis-Kompany play stopper-sweeper on Messi.B/R Tighe

When it all went wrong, it was partly a matter of ill luck, and partly a matter of Barcelona's brilliance.

Jesus Navas probably was caught on the knee in conceding possession, although his decision to fling
himself down meant he was in no position to help regain possession. Messi lingered in an offside position until the two centre-backs had retreated, at which Andres Iniesta released a pass instantly.

Suddenly Demichelis was having to turn, rather than playing with the game in front of him, and at that his cumbersomeness was exposed. His lunge was then misjudged in two ways: he neither won the ball nor made sure to foul Messi obviously outside the box.

Even then City played relatively well in the circumstances, but the removal of Aleksandar Kolarov to accommodate Samir Nasri exposed what a valuable job he'd been doing in negating the forward surges of Dani Alves. If one team effectively plays with two wingers on one flank, then why not counter that with two full-backs?

Far better as a gauge of which side is dominating a game that possession is shots—Barca had 10 to City's nine, four of which were on target to City's three.

Nobody is saying Barca didn't "deserve"—always a slightly odd notion—to win, but it was close. Pellegrini could be criticised for the defeat at home to Bayern Munich in the group stage (when he left the midfield open), and for the defeat at home to Chelsea in the league (when he didn't react to stem Chelsea's counter-attacks), but on this occasion he got his tactical plan right. 

City were undone by one move: possession lost, the bounce favouring Barca and Barca then taking advantage to strike with a lightning counter-attack. In close games, that happens, and nobody is to blame.

*Quotes obtained first-hand.

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