Manchester City’s anxious victory over strugglers Stoke at the Etihad on Saturday may have kept them in touch with leaders Chelsea in the Premier League title race, but it didn’t quite dispel the doubts raised by their midweek defeat in the Champions League at the hands of Barcelona.
Put simply, Manuel Pellegrini lost his nerve against the Catalan giants. It showed in both his choice of personnel and his formation. All season, the Chilean has put faith in an attack-minded 4-4-2 and his players’ ability to see off all comers with their physical power and the quality of their attacking play. You worry about us, because we’ll not be worrying about you, seemed to the manager’s tactical mantra.
But against Barcelona, Pellegrini was clearly worried about the visitors and for the first time this season he changed his approach to counter an opponent. So in came a five man midfield and a questionable plan to shackle Danny Alves with two full backs down the City left – and out went the formation that has served them so well.
Pellegrini’s selection and formation might have been logical a couple of seasons ago when Barcelona were in their pomp, but it made much less sense on Tuesday.
Bayerns Munich’s 7-0 aggregate demolition of the Spanish champions in last season’s Champions League semi finals showed not just how much their powers have waned – but also how powerful, aggressive and technically gifted opponents could wrest control of the ball for long enough to exploit their defensive weaknesses.
Manchester City have similar qualities to Munich in terms of their physical attributes and their ability to monopolise possession. So what surprised me most last Tuesday was Pellegrini’s decision to contain Barca rather than be aggressive and get after them as they have every other opponent this season – and follow Bayern’s lead. It suggested a loss of nerve, a sudden sense of doubt. And doubts, to paraphrase Bill Shakespeare, are traitors that make us fear to attempt.
Before Christmas, I suggested in this paper that the main barrier to City regaining the Premier League title might come from within, rather than from without. Then, I was suggesting that if they rid themselves of the suspect attitude in away games that saw them drop points at unlikely venues, then it would be extremely hard to back against them given the quality and depth of their squad. Victories in January at Swansea, Newcastle and Spurs suggested they had done so.
But after a critical defeat at home to title rivals Chelsea and now this sudden change of approach – and another defeat – against Barcelona, it’ll be interesting to see if their sense of belief and that of their manager in particular may have been undermined. Saturday’s three points against Stoke will have been greeted with relief, but there are bigger tests of Pellegrini’s nerve to come.