THOUGHT THE FIRST: Before We Get to the Match
We have to talk about Manuel Pellegrini's tactical brilliance against Kiev and against Liverpool in the Cup final. After spending months trying to figure out what to do with Yaya Toure, with all the known world claiming the Ivorian could no longer defend his own shadow much less another player, about how he couldn't (or wouldn't) track back, about how age had caught up with him and maybe his playing time should be curtailed if not eliminated, Pellegrini pulled off a move that showed he had bolo sized huevos. He started three central mids--nothing unusual there--and he made Yaya Toure his primary central defensive midfielder. The guy who couldn't or wouldn't play defense was asked to play defense on the road in a champions league game. In defiance of all conventional wisdom, it worked.
Looking back, I'm not sure why it didn't occur to anyone sooner to play Yaya as the deep lying mid because logically, it has to work. Yaya as deep lying mid doesn't have to track back or even charge forward. He just has to protect the back four, direct traffic in the defensive third fire off an incredibly accurate pass (which he did 58 times at a 98% completion rate). Fernando was the guy who charged forward disrupting everything in his path, Fernandinho played right wing (!) and David Silva was allowed to play his coveted #10, just behind the striker Aguero. There were a couple of mild hiccups but City won at a canter, all but assuring a spot in the final 8 for the first time in their history.
In the Cup final it was the same thing with a slight difference. Fernando was the mid in front of the back four, Yaya just off to the left and allowed to roam a little further up the pitch. Silva was still #10, Fernandinho still ran wild on the right wing and Liverpool's vaunted high press didn't have space to press: City were stronger, a little faster and controlled the field for the better part of three hours. I'm actually glad it went to PK's because it validated now and forever my favorite Pellegrini quality: the wonderfully holistic way he treats his players. We all know about Caballero who got the deserved Man of the Match just one game removed from his disastrous turn in the FA Cup. While one and all clamored for Joe Hart, Pellegrini chose the most highly criticized player of the week: Caballero. He did the same thing for his most criticized player of the year: Yaya Toure played every minute against Kiev, every minute of the Cup final and was excellent in both.
THOUGHT THE SECOND: Which Brings Us to Anfield
To explain why yesterday's match was the football equivalent of a death march, one need look no further than the lineup card; before the first notes of YNWA were played, City were in trouble. Yaya was out injured (he was essentially one-legged for the Cup winning penalty kick), leaving Pellegrini with just two central mids. Fernandinho could no longer play his wonderfully unusual right-wing role; he had to play in the center. That isn't bad in and of itself but City were coming off two fine efforts while using three central mids and now they were down to just two. So that was problem number one.
The second problem was Liverpool started five fresh players to City's two: Jesus Navas and Joe Hart. Throughout the match, City players looked a half-step slow.
Problem three was that City's attack had all the aggression of the Lollipop Guild: Aguero, Silva, Raheem Sterling and Navas have wonderful qualities all but they are not the most physically strong players in the league. By contrast, Liverpool, with fresher legs and a home crowd behind them, had loads of physical strength in the center of the pitch. If City were to win, they had try to do the same thing that failed the last time the two teams met in league play: all but concede the midfield to Liverpool and try for an attack on the wings. Additionally, they had to hope for a great game from David Silva instead of the relatively good games he had been playing recently.
It was a frustrating evening to say the least. Liverpool was far the more physical team. What physicality we had in the form of Fernandinho and Fernando looked especially gassed. The wing play was okay--Sterling played well in the time he was on the pitch--but it wasn't nearly enough to counteract the Liverpool stampede in the center. Additionally, David Silva had a howler, one of his worst games in a City shirt (I'm tempted to point out what the commentary would've been had Yaya put in a similar effort but I'll let it pass). It was, for all intents and purposes, a virtual mirror image of the game played at the Etihad. By the final whistle, City had the dreaded realization that in two league games against Liverpool, they had been outscored by six goals.
Given a choice, of course Pellegirni would've had Yaya in the game. He would've loved to make Jurgen Klopp answer to the lineup he fielded in the Cup final. But the bald fact is he hasn't been able to do so for most of the season. Our best lineup is still waiting to be discovered, but injuries keep getting in the way.
THOUGHT THE THIRD: Where we are, in bullets:
- Tied with United for 4th place in the league (we got a game in hand)
- One point ahead of West Ham
- Ten points back of first place with three teams ahead of us
- Still with 33 points to play for but...
- Still with more injuries than a M*A*S*H unit.
THOUGHT THE FOURTH: Sentence That Drives Me Crazy
What if Pep Guardiola has a clause that allows him to turn down the City job if we don't make Champions League.
THOUGHT THE FIFTH: Poll!
You know what to do...