Having watched his side play – and play well, to be fair – for an hour in a torrential Mancunian downpour, Pellegrini stood stoically in his technical box as Stevan Jovetic prepared to be substituted in place of the here-to fantastic James Milner. At this point, with the title seemingly in touching distance, you’d be forgiven for wondering if that precious opener would evade the side in blue, as Typical City made yet another heart aching appearance.
There had been chances, mind. Kolarov, Yaya, Silva, Dzeko and finally Nasri all missed first-half chances that would have put the hosts ahead, and as each chance came and went with a change to the scoreline, that anxious feeling grew as patience began to wane. Yet there sat Pellegrini, seemingly unmoved in his belief and pragmatism, as the halftime break came and went with no changes to the side that desperately sought a goal.
The second half brought more of the same as City continued to keep the ball at a Barcelona-esque rate. Demichelis pushed even further forward leaving only Kompany within touching distance of the halfway line as 21 of the 22 players occupied the Villan half; Kolarov and Zabaleta were fullbacks in name only, as both were higher up the pitch than Garcia and Yaya. Pellegrini’s 4-2-3-1 looked more like a 2-2-6 as City threw caution to the wind in search of what might become a title winning goal.
City’s build-up play looked different in this game than in any that had come before. Demichelis took up the role of the early ball carrying distributer as Kompany played sweeper. The middle of the pitch became a crowded throng of bodies, each looking for a new way past the staunch and structured Villan lines. But still, no opening arrived.
And so with half an hour left to be played, Pellegrini, he of pragmatism and patience, finally looked towards his bench. Up stepped Jovetic, City’s newly acquired and oft-injured striker, and the fourth official held up the board: a red 7 and a green 35 brought new hope in the form of a minor character in this drawn out play. The change signaled an alteration to City’s play, a wrinkle if you will. Where Milner plays on the wing, Jovetic plays through the middle; Milner moves to the byline, Jovetic drops between the lines.
Pellegrini, staring directly into the eye of the storm, removed City’s hereto most effective player in an effort to shift the attack. One of the pervasive complaints directed at this City side is that there are too few players willing to shoot from distance; that they, like Arsenal, “always try to walk it in.” Through the first sixty minutes against Villa, the attacks came from the wings: Zabaleta and Milner on the right, Kolarov on the left. The tactic was simple: force Villa to stretch their defensive shape to the wings. And to be honest, it was working – just without the goal to show for it.
Tactically speaking though, Milner was a rather superfluous piece; with City seeing 75% of the ball and Villa packing eleven men within thirty-five yards of Guzan’s goal, the overlapping run from Zabaleta wasn’t entirely necessary. On the left, Kolarov had very little trouble getting to the byline without the help of another body – Nasri, as he is wont to do, played very little of the game on the left wing, leaving Kolarov isolated (a risk if Villa had offered anything going forward) – a tactical element that was later mirrored on the right following Milner’s exit. Jovetic instantly took up a central position, playing just off Dzeko, while Silva moved wider right.
The change paid almost instant dividends, as City, playing with an increased vigor and a faster tempo, fashioned a brilliant move not four full minutes later. Garcia to Silva to Zabaleta to Yaya to Silva to Zabaleta to Dzeko, goal. And that as they say, is that.
Having arrived at the Etihad to replace the tumultuous highs and lows of the Mancini Era, Pellegrini carried with him a certain element of the lovable loser. While Real Madrid gained their highest ever points total under the Chilean in 2009-2010, they were unable to remove Barcelona from their Liga perch, and although he won our hearts with his underdog Villarreal and Malaga sides, they too failed to collect any silverware.
He came to England then, hoping to shed this label, knowing a Premier League title would silence even his loudest critics. And while life in the Premier League has brought ups and downs (City’s early away struggles and the matter of Joe Hart’s form), Pellegrini has, apart from one ill-fated verbal attack on a Swedish referee, remained a calming figure, guiding City to the precipice of the Club’s second title in three years. He’s proven himself tactically flexible and impressively pragmatic. He’s changed the culture of the dressing room while pushing previously underperforming players to new heights; Nasri, Garcia, Kolarov, and even Dzeko to a certain degree, have all played their best football in City shirts.
And in his most important test yet, Pellegrini showed patience, pragmatism and a calming presence, that all but ensured City’s home date with West Ham (just a clean sheet should prove enough) can be an occasion to celebrate. Indeed, it was only after his first change, that goals from Dzeko, Jovetic, and Yaya saw City take three vital points, allowing anxiety to make way for ecstasy and panic to subside for peace, as Typical City – at least on this night – was put to rest.