“Today we played very well and that’s why I am so happy not only with the score, that we scored six goals, but also because we were very balanced."
So said Pellegrini after City's incredible home win against West Ham in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final tie. It's one of the few times all seasons I've seen Pellegrini mention the importance balance -- something City often look uninterested in as the goals go flying in.
But against the better sides in England and the very best teams in Europe, Pellegrini's City will be forced not only to play with balance, but also to believe in its importance.
In the place of the rested Fernandinho, Javi Garcia played alongside Yaya Touré in central midfield (although, in the spirit of full disclosure, it's impossible to really play "alongside" the Ivorian Freight Train). And while Javi Garcia's time at City can hardly be described as a roaring success -- in fact, he's often been one of the primary outlets of frustration among the fan base -- he remains of the few people in this side who can bring balance to Pellegrini's 4-4-2.
Yesterday's lineup saw Dzeko and Negredo paired up top (a couplet that, for the first time all season, brought undeniable success), with Nasri and Silva playing the role of midfield interiores. Between them was Yaya, a player with unrivalled abilities when in possession, but perhaps lacking in the more tactical elements intrinsic to the off the ball movements required of central midfielders.
Cue one, Javi Garcia. A player whose passing range is rather unimpressive, whose aerial ability can be a weakness when playing in central defence, and whose tackling ability often betrays him. And yet, like the Jedi Prophecy foretold, he brings balance to the force (the force of course, being City's death strike like attack).
The best qualities Javi Garcia possesses are his tactical reading of the game (the very reason City was keen to buy him from Benfica) and his apparent knowledge of his shortcomings. He's clearly not in the same class as Fernandinho and Yaya, but that's not necessarily what's important here. He brings something neither of them can. He's at his best when sitting in front of the two central defenders without the ball, while the five forward players (and the fullbacks) play Pellegrini's triangles.
He's not the box-to-box player Fernandinho is and he's certainly not the unplayable offensive juggernaut that Yaya Touré is; but Pellegrini doesn't want him to be, doesn't need him to be, and most importantly, doesn't ask him to be. He's a player that quietly brings balance to a team of superstar attacking talent by reading the game, providing outlets and protecting his centre-backs.
And so ends my so called “Defense of Javi Garcia” (copyright coming) and begins my actual (and admittedly rather short) analysis.
Via @benjaminpugsley (seriously, if you don’t follow him on twitter you’re doing yourself a grave disservice, people) we can see just how dominant City were -- and of course just how truly terrible West Ham played.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>This ain't a pretty stat line from the Man City v West Ham game: <a href="http://t.co/9TWcY9jcHo">pic.twitter.com/9TWcY9jcHo</a></p>— Ben Pugsley (@benjaminpugsley) <a href="https://twitter.com/benjaminpugsley/statuses/421032828734689280">January 8, 2014</a></blockquote>
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The stats reflect exactly how the game was played and demonstrate just how clueless West Ham were. Indeed, if there was a specific tactical strategy on Allardyce’s part, I still can’t figure it out.
Defensively, they looked to adopt the same strategy that Sunderland deployed during their 1-0 victory at the Stadium of Light back in November. (An analysis of that match can be found here) They defended in a similar 4-5-1 with Maiga playing the role of Fletcher, staying high in the middle, seeking to press to the left and the right. The wingers, Stewart Downing and Joe Cole, dropped off considerably, playing almost as deep wingbacks. Meanwhile, in the middle of the pitch, Diame, Noble and Taylor played in a rotating triangle with each player alternating the pressing responsibilities as City moved the ball from one side of the field to the other.
Perhaps in a sign of improvement from that shock defeat to Sunderland (or perhaps barely proving their superiority to Nottingham Forest, who beat West Ham 5-0 in FA Cup at the weekend), City showed great improvement against the defensive formation, doing anything and everything they wanted, while rarely getting out of third gear.
Negredo’s performance was likely the best of the bunch, as he was City’s Mr Everything Man: he scored, he passed, he pressed, and he dropped. His energy off the ball and talent on it, are impossible to deny – a great signing regardless of what I might have said about it in the summer. Defensively, Lescott continues to play quite well when paired with Kompany, while Hart was hardly necessary. Against sides that are likely to sit deeper and defend off the ball, Silva and Nasri continue to be paired together in midfield, with Navas being especially useful against teams that like to play a higher defensive line or who try to keep possession.
Moving forward it will be interesting to see how Pellegrini approaches his apparently newfound appreciation for balance as City’s “best” midfield pairing is perhaps not the most balanced. Sunday meanwhile, brings an away day to Newcastle that with the right Saturday luck could see City jump Arsenal at the top of the table.