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On Tactics, Criticism and Squad Construction

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With just ten league matches remaining and rumours of Pellegrini's impending exit, it's time to take stock of City's season.

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In the aftermath of a comprehensive (yet somehow only one goal) defeat to Barcelona, the criticism of Pellegrini’s tactics could be heard in force. Five days later, after another one goal defeat—this time at Anfield to a Liverpool side that can’t seem to stop collecting points (29 points since Christmas!)—the criticism, even louder than before, morphed into rumours that Pellegrini’s job is in very real jeopardy.

Still catching criticism for playing a 4-4-2 that everyone seemed to love back when City were banging in goals and winning trophies, Pellegrini has remained true to his attacking philosophy. When Pellegrini took this job in the summer of 2013, Manchester City CEO, Ferran Soriano, made it clear that the Chilean was expected to guide this team to "five trophies in five years." Having already won two in his first year in charge, one would be forgiven for thinking Pellegrini was perfectly on pace to achieve the board’s lofty expectations.

That however, doesn’t appear to be the case, with the rumours growing so loud they’re now impossible to avoid – both for the fans and the manager. Faced with a must-win game against Leiscester, amidst multiple reports claiming Soriano has already compiled a five manager short-list, Pellegrini dropped Kompany and Zabaleta to the bench while leaving Samir Nasri off the match-day squad entirely.  And while Pellegrini’s post-game comments claimed they needed a "refreshing mentally and physically" it seems rather obvious they were dropped for underachieving – Kompany especially.

It’s hard – perhaps impossible – to claim this as a successful season for the reigning champions: sitting second in the league (five points behind Chelsea, having played one game more), with a League Cup exit at the hands of the oft-shambolic Newcastle and an FA Cup loss to Championship side, Middleborough. It’s certainly looking more and more likely that if City are to redeem this season (and save Pellegrini’s job in the process), it will come via the Champions League, an especially tough ask seeing as a trip to the Nou Camp awaits Pellegrini’s men.

It’s taken 350 words to get to the primary concern: has City’s problem been a result of poor tactics or something else? The answer, of course, is sort of.  And if set pieces count as tactics, then the answer to that question becomes a resounding yes. Others have written about City’s 2014-15 set piece horror better than I can (@shuddertothink, especially), but it bears repeating. City have scored just four goals from set pieces this season – 13 less than last year – while conceding five. Yes, City have managed to score less goals from set pieces than their opponents. Pellegrini must surely take the blame for his side being so truly inept from dead ball scenarios.

That leaves us with the small issue of playing a 4-4-2 against Barcelona, the tactical decision that has earned him the loudest criticism. That decision, at least to me, must be analyzed with three very specific factors included: 1) Yaya’s suspension and subsequent unavailability; 2) the effect that the 5-0 victory against Newcastle three days earlier played on the team’s psyche; and 3) City’s relatively poor home performance against Barcelona in 2014.

Let’s start with the first concern: Pellegrini, forced to field a side without his most important player, chose to employ the most high-risk strategy in hopes of earning a positive result. It was a brave decision, full of peculiar choices, and ultimately didn’t come off. But why is that? Was City’s poor performance and bad result (which would have been significantly worse had Messi scored his last minute penalty) an explicit consequence of playing a 4-4-2 without City’s best central midfielder available? Perhaps. But, on the other hand, perhaps it was a result of dropping Fernandinho in favor of Fernando or Milner in that midfield two. Perhaps Pellegrini wanted Milner’s on the ball quality if and when City won the ball back from Barca, but then wouldn’t he also want that from Fernandinho – who if nothing else, is a better on the ball player than Fernando. The two primary benefits of the 4-4-2 is that it helps ensure Aguero isn’t isolated, something that tends to happen when City play with one striker in bigger matches.

It’s hard for me to criticize Pellegrini, who, coming off a resounding victory against Newcastle three days earlier and perhaps hoping to turn the two leg tie into a high-scoring shootout, deployed the formation that he thought gave him the best possibility to score goals. After all, isn’t that what this City side has been assembled for? To keep the ball and to score goals? This is where the heavy criticism confuses me.

Why did so many people want Pellegrini to set up his team to defend, when that’s obviously what this side does worse than anything? Would City really have been better served playing an extra body in midfield in hopes of clogging passing lanes? Which players in this side are good off the ball players? Pellegrini, knowing his team would have been ill-suited to drop in, defend in a deep block, and hopefully bag one on the break, tried to take the game to the visitors. And it didn’t work – in part because City failed miserably in their pressing game, something Pellegrini pointed out and bemoaned in his post-match press conference.

Finally, Pellegrini played a single striker 4-2-3-1 with Kolarov on the wing in City’s 1-2 defeat in this same fixture last year. City struggled to provide anything positive going forward and were soundly beaten 0-2. Determined not to have a repeat performance, Pellegrini elected for the opposite, to try and deploy tactics specifically suited to the construction of his team.

And this brings me to the final point: the construction of this team has been deeply flawed. For all the money in the world, where are City’s world-class players? I count three (maybe four depending on how you view Zabaleta), and only two of them were available for the Barcelona fixture – that’s a failure in recruitment that’s costing City. Since Mancini’s two brilliant years of recruitment that saw Yaya, Silva, Dzeko, Aguero and Nasri (not to mention Boateng who would be a nailed on starter now) come in, City’s transfer policy has failed the club.

The summer of 2012-13 was the obvious low point, with the club buying five players (Garcia, Nastasic, Rodwell, Sinclair, and Maicon) who have all since left the club and it’s hardly improved since. Of the 23 senior players in this side, only two of them are younger than 25 (Boyata and Managla) and only five of them are younger than 27 (Boyata, Mangala, Bony, Aguero and Jovetic). I’m not entirely willing to put the entirety of the blame for this season on City’s squad, but it’s a damning indictment of the transfer policy that in a year when City spent over £80m, the best signing has been a 36 year old who signed on a free. The majority of these players are now too old and not good enough to perform to the high levels that Soriano expects. And that’s hard to pin on Pellegrini.