Manuel Pellegrini is clearly under pressure. Equally, his team is under pressure. And it must be quite a concern for the fans that, speaking after the CSKA Moscow defeat, the manager said he didn’t know why the performance was so flat. It’s worrying when the person in charge can’t put his finger on the problem, but in his defence he did have to react immediately after the game.
Three days then passed and the Blues put in another disappointing display travelling to QPR. It wouldn’t be too bad had it been two poor performances in a string of good ones, but that’s now one win in six matches. The club haven’t gone worse than that since Mark Hughes had his run of draws in autumn 2009.
After the draw at QPR, Pellegrini says he thought City were unlucky – and have been unlucky for a while. He said he felt his side weren’t playing well, but were creating chances. He used the word ‘unlucky’ that many times that it sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
This season isn’t finished, but it’s in danger of getting away from the club unless something is done to turn around the form now. But before work is done, we need to be honest and assess some of the problems that City are experiencing at the moment.
A Lack of Goals
Converting chances into goals has been a real issue for the Blues this season. City haven’t been finding it difficult to get to the final third by and large, but the frequent sight of a packed defence – especially at the Etihad – has meant it’s been vital for the team to score when given the opportunity. And that’s something that’s not been happening.
Occasionally, it’s down to players choosing not to shoot – but that’s a bit of an easy out. It’s frequently heard in the stands at Eastlands to “just bloody shoot”, but it’s got to the point where that ideal is being blasted at players who are surrounded by opponents to the extent that it’d be a miracle if the ball found a gap. There are, though, times when players have opted to square it rather than actually take the responsibility of a shot; in the last few weeks Jesus Navas, Samir Nasri and David Silva have all been guilty of it.
However, that hasn’t been the only problem. With the exception of Sergio Aguero – who has now scored more than half of City’s Premier League goals this season and is averaging better than a goal a game in that competition – the Blues’ strike force has been largely wasteful. Analysis of shooting from statistics alone is misguided, given a tame penny roller from 45 yards counts as a shot on target providing it would have crossed the line if the goalkeeper had been AWOL.
City have managed 65 of 147 shots on target in the Premier League this season and that’s resulted in 22 goals. On the whole, that doesn’t sound like a dreadful return, but the bigger picture is that the Blues just aren’t looking like hitting the net with any regularity. The average is bang on two goals a game, while last year it was 2.6.
In real terms, City have struck three or more in a game on just four occasions this season. One of them was in a League Cup tie against a Championship side. The confidence in front of goal is clearly nothing like it was in 2013-14. However, they are at least scoring; they’ve only failed to score in three matches this campaign.
The solution isn’t overly simple: City need to get in more shots from dangerous positions, but they’re struggling to get into the dangerous positions in the first place.
It’s here where the lack of goals is becoming a problem. Defending has been something of an issue for the club so far this season, with clean sheets at a premium and individual errors commonplace. The form of Gael Clichy has been largely poor, while Eliaquim Mangala has struggled after an impressive debut – frequently down to being exposed by his full back. Even the trustworthy Pablo Zabaleta has been below par.
In the years before Pellegrini was manager, City were built on a solid foundation. Roberto Mancini was a stickler for sorting out the rear-guard and was the master of shutting up shop more often than not – especially in 0-0 draws at The Emirates. However, the Chilean prefers a more attacking game and, by definition, that leaves the back line more exposed.
Both Vincent Kompany and Martin Demichelis (and, to an extent, Mangala) are pro-active defenders. They break rank to try to win back possession of the ball, rather than stand back and try to react to the situation as it unfolds. This isn’t a problem, far from it. However, it does attract attention – trying to make the tackle high up the pitch looks worse than standing off and missing a block does when either goes wrong.
But when the proactive defenders aren’t covered by their full-backs, then problems arise. Here the more frequent culprit is Clichy, who has offered very little cover for Mangala and Demichelis – which has resulted in own goals scored by both of them, one at Hull and one at QPR.
With both full backs bombing on and with the players ahead of them offering little protection (one or two exceptions aside), City have been easily exposed down the flanks. It’s no surprise Manchester United became more threatening when James Milner was no longer helping Clichy out.
Conceding goals isn’t so much a problem when a team is scoring, but that’s exactly what City are also struggling with. Pellegrini really needs to be more pragmatic; while his team isn’t scoring as freely as he wants, he needs to make sure they don’t let so many in.
Chance creation can only come with quick and dynamic movement of the ball. We’ve seen the Blues dominate possession in recent weeks, but it’s been largely in the middle and back thirds; as soon as it gets towards the opposition box, it breaks down.
There are two issues at work: too many touches and an inability to pick out short passes. As, for instance, Navas or Nasri pick the ball up in a wide area, an extra two or three touches allow the back line to set-up and defend against those who have broken into the box. If there is to be no cross – which isn’t a downside, since putting the ball in the air makes it a percentage pass needing to be won – then the pass back or across needs to be made earlier. That’s how opposing players are dragged out of position and gaps exploited.
The quality of the short passing in the last couple of games hasn’t been up to scratch either. Square passes through midfield have been frequently intercepted, setting the opposition up on a counter attack. You’d expect it to happen maybe once or twice every few weeks, but it was a recurring theme against CSKA Moscow and QPR.
Is it just me that gets the impression there isn’t a lot of unity within the squad? Misplaced passes and hogging possession and poor decisions on the ball and space-taking runs… All of these problems are being greeted by an angry response and a bit of a strop.
Through various spells in 2013-14, most notably in December to January and in the title run-in, Pellegrini had his players producing performances that were greater than the sum of their parts. His side were playing with confidence and were supporting each other; but currently they look a shell of their old selves.
Confidence is key here: when things are going well, people are easier to get on with. When the pressure is on, tempers get frayed and they spill out from time to time. City are under pressure and their confidence is rock bottom; perhaps reinstalling the good feeling around the club is the biggest challenge facing Pellegrini. He’s done it once when taking over from Mancini and it’s time to do it again.
A tactic the Blues have struggled to counter for a while is when opponents press them high up the pitch. The defenders are comfortable in possession, but when there is little space there is always the danger that a misplaced pass can leave the back door wide open for Mr or Mrs Cock-Up. A number of goals this season have been conceded when City have tried to play their way out of defence, only to give up possession in a dangerous position.
It’s no secret – especially among Blues fans – that Joe Hart’s distribution has been an issue for some time. When he’s been asked to deliver the ball long, it’s frequently been kicked into touch, while goal kicks tend to come straight back to the defence because aerial balls are often not won by the forward midgets. The answer is a short pass out to his defence, but teams have been cutting that out by pressing high up the pitch.
City need to be cuter in possession and – crucially – somebody needs to work with Hart on getting the ball out long with better accuracy, avoiding touch.
System and Tactics
The fans have groaned rather loudly when the teamsheet has suggested Pellegrini is playing a basic 4-4-2 formation, with calls for him to switch to a 4-5-1 becoming fairly common. However, the suggestion that the classic system doesn’t work just doesn’t really hold much water – City won the league playing it last year.
The more subtle change this time out has been in the roles of the central midfielders. Yaya Toure has been less offensive and has barely made one of his trademark marauding runs, while his partners in Fernandinho and Fernando have been hit and miss – one seems to be suffering from a World Cup hangover, while the other hasn’t been right since his injury.
With the full-backs sprinting forward when possession is won and with an easily by-passed midfield, the centre backs are exposed. This has been making the Blues quite an easy team to counter attack and it’s never good when you’re at your most vulnerable when you’ve got the ball. Whether it’s two or three players in midfield doesn’t make much difference when the full-backs are playing more like wing-backs, but without the cover of that third central defender.
This is much clearer in Europe, where teams are much more clinical in possession and much quicker on the counter-attack. City have been far too open and that needs to be tightened up if they’re to have any chance of catching Chelsea and achieving the unlikely feat of qualifying from the Champions League group.
It’s by no means the end of the world for the club. But unless something is done soon, it’s going to be too late. I’d be surprised if Pellegrini wasn’t working on the issues behind the scenes, but his recent comments that there aren’t serious problems in the performances are a little concerning. I’ve previously said that phrases like “we must do better” and “there are no excuses” are wearing thin.
Now’s the time to put words into action.
Written by David Mooney