Let’s start with the obvious: Manchester City don’t have a player who can do the things Leo Messi can. He influences the opposition’s tactics more than any player I’ve ever seen, and much more often than not, makes those choices obsolete.
On Wednesday, needing to score at least two away goals, Pellegrini fashioned his side specifically to deal with the threat that Messi posed. With Clichy unavailable due to suspension, Aleksandar Kolarov was the only left-back option, a rather large problem considering 1) that’s the side Messi has been playing from and 2) the Serbian isn’t exactly renowned for his defensive abilities. Knowing this, Pellegrini played Milner inverted on the left, coincidentally, the same position he played in during Manchester City’s 2-3 victory against Bayern Munich (from which he scored the winner).
Pellegrini reacted to City’s first leg performance by making two other changes: he dropped Dzeko in favor of a one-striker system and he started Sagna at right-back (who I think did quite well, all things considered). Despite the system change, City’s central midfield looked and played more like a midfield two than a midfield three, which can be seen all too easily during Barcelona’s only goal.
That goal starts with Messi on the wing with the ball: Milner and Kolarov "defending" him as best as two mere mortals can cover Messi; Fernandinho is in the middle of the pitch (forced to cover more space than he, on his own, can) and Yaya isn’t visible in the telecast frame – which is the primary problem. The initial reaction was that it was Sagna’s fault for leaving Rakitic in space, but that’s simply not the case. When Demichelis pushes wide to mark Suarez, Kompany continues to move that direction, defending space rather than players, essentially leaving Sagna to man-mark Neymar.
As Messi cuts back to play his (absurdly perfect) diagonal to Rakitic, we still can’t see Yaya in frame, meaning Rakitic was free to run nearly forty meters entirely unmarked. And the fault for that rests solely on two players: Yaya and Messi. If it’s any other player on the ball, Fernandinho drops into the space between Clichy and Kompany, picking up Neymar’s run allowing Sagna to push out to Rakitic. But it’s not any other player, it’s Leo Messi, forcing the Brazilian to give Milner and Kolarov extra support.
That goal almost too perfectly highlights City’s deficiencies and Barcelona’s strengths. City first: there isn’t enough communication in the defensive third and the responsibilities to track runs and players go unfulfilled all too often. If you’re playing with two central midfielders and one of them pushes wide to offer support to a fullback, the other has to drop into that space and pick up someone, anyone. Yaya didn’t do that (and I think it’s mostly because he’s incapable at his current age to play in a midfield two at this level). Now Barca: it’s a goal that showcases everything they do well at the moment: I don’t believe for a moment, that Suarez makes his run to the right thinking he’s eventually getting the ball – rather, he’s dragged Demichelis out of the width of the box, forcing Kompany to shift with him. That leaves enough space for Neymar to make the same run just thirty yards away, forcing Sagna to go with him. The result? Fifteen yards of space in the box for Rakitic to move into, control the ball, and lob Hart.
But is any of that possible without Messi? Maybe, but it seems unlikely.
I said from the beginning of this match that City didn’t have to progress for Pellegrini to warrant praise, and I stand by that. I think he got almost everything right, even in defeat. I lobbyed for Sagna over Zabaleta in the first leg because I thought Sagna dealt with Hazard better than any right-back has all season and I think Neymar’s an even better player than the Belgian. I think it was absolutely the right decision to play Milner above Kolarov to afford him extra protection against Messi (even if it didn't work and/or matter). And it was probably the right decision to drop Dzeko in hopes of offering more in possession. Even his first change, which came at halftime, was a proactive switch that actually saw City do more in possession. (Coincidentally it might also signal an end to Nasri’s time at City as Pellegrini appears to have grown tired of him.)
As it was, City were a missed penalty away from having 12-15 minutes to fight for a winner that would’ve seen them to extra-time. And while much of that credit should go the way of Joe Hart (only his performance against Dortmund was better), Pellegrini did, in my opinon, enough to give his side a chance at progression.
And if I sound too optimistic, I apologize. This side has obvious problems – squad construction, age concerns, and player motivation to name a few – but away to Barcelona, on a night that Messi was simply unplayable, just doesn’t feel like the best occasion to make sweeping generalizations or draw end of days conclusions.
And besides, City finished with eleven players . . . against Barcelona. That’s about as much a victory as it is a defeat. (No, I’m not being serious.)