Knowing Stoke would come to the Etihad to defend in a deep and tight defensive block and look to hit City on the counter, Pellegrini’s team selection left itself open to criticism. The City boss made three changes to the team that beat Liverpool on Monday: both fullbacks were replaced by Kolarov and Sagna while Aguero made his first start of the season in place of Edin Dzeko. From the off, it looked obvious that City might lack width, which in the end is exactly what happened.
Stoke manager (and one time horror show manager of City), Mark Hughes, also made three changes from his side that drew 1-1 away to Hull City: Steve Sidwell made way for Peter Crouch, Marko Arnautovic for Victor Moses and Peter Odemwingie for Jonathan Walters. Those changes, according to Hughes, were done for fitness purposes and squad rotation, but they also proved the catalyst for a tactical change in formation. Against Hull, they played in a 4-2-3-1 with Steven N’Zonzi (a much more technical player than he often gets credit for) played above Steve Sidwell and Glen Whelan in midfield.
Against City though, it was a 4-4-1-1 that looked most like a 4-6-0 for the final twenty minutes. N’Zonzi played deep in midfield alongside Whelan, flanked by wingers turned additional full-backs, Victor Moses and Jonathan Walters. When in possession, Diouf played just off Peter Crouch, but actually pushed up further when Stoke defended.
And make no mistake, they defended well and for long stretches, too. It was reminiscent of City’s 0-1 loss at the Stadium of Light last season when Poyet used a deep midfield three with Ki dropping into the space between the CBs while instructing the wingers to drop deep just above (and at times, beside) the fullbacks. Walters, especially played so close to Bardsley at right-back that it was difficult to identify which was supposed to play right-back and who was just hanging out beside him.
Walter’s presence disrupted and diminished Kolarov’s impact from left-back, leaving City without any real influential wide player. Sagna – who played well defensively in his first match for City – didn’t (and likely won’t) offer the same runs as Zabaleta, which complicates the notion that Sagna can offer Zabaleta rest against the so-called "smaller" teams. Zabaleta’s off the ball overlaps and diagonal runs across the back four are hugely important to City’s success against deep defensive blocks, and without them, City struggled to create chances from outside-in.
The creative burden fell (as it often does) on Silva, Nasri and Yaya all of whom look for chances in the middle of the pitch. Not to beat the dead horse even more, but City lacked penetration from the wide positions and Stoke were more than happy to defend the middle of the pitch. The movement seemed slow and predictable and the creative players never found the creative players. Pellegrini said afterward that he didn’t think "City were casual." Instead saying that he thought "we were very patient, we tried to create space, and Stoke defended very well. We didn’t play very well creatively and it was a bad day."
While I agree that the creativity was largely stifled and that it was in fact "a bad day," I think the line between casual and patient is paper thin and City were, too often on Saturday, too casual in their approach. The passes were too safe, the movement was too slow and predictable, and the tempo lacked any urgency until the final 20-25 minutes.
While I think he got his starting XI rather dreadfully wrong, I do think Pellegrini’s introductions changed City’s play changed significantly after the hour mark. Dzeko for Jovetic meant City finally had a target to cross to and Navas for Nasri brought necessary width, while also de-cluttering the center of the pitch. It was ultimately too little too late but they were at least the sort of changes the match required.
Finally, a word on Stoke’s goal; while it was a great run and solo goal it was a three part defensive disaster that allowed it to happen. The first mistake: how did Kolarov not hack Diouf down and take his booking like a hero? Too much at stake for him to try to shoulder a bigger and stronger player off the ball at the area of the pitch. That’s the sort of foul that Xabi Alonso has made a career out of and for good reason, too – tactical fouls are important fouls that save goals. The second mistake: Fernandinho absolutely has to keep Diouf in front of him. I understand he’s back pedaling and not a central defender more used to that position, but for him to get the runaround like that – eek. As for Hart’s error … it’s clearly Big Willy’s Time.