PELLEGRINI’S PERSISTENCE WITH 4-4-2 ALL BUT ENDS TITLE CHARGE
Manchester City’s players stood on the pitch at the final whistle at Anfield on Sunday scratching their heads and looking to the heavens.
They had just lost 2-1 to Liverpool, as they look likely to slip eight-points behind Chelsea in the title race with just 11 games to go. Sergio Aguero and Co. will probably be asking themselves the same questions many of us will be trying to answer on Monday: how can a team dripping with wonderfully talented players continue to stutter through games?
[ RELATED: Pellegrini gets tactics wrong vs. Barca ]
One explanation, and perhaps the most critical one, is that Manuel Pellegrini’s insistence to go with a 4-4-2 formation and leave his team short in midfield areas is causing so many issues. Against Barcelona last Tuesday, I watched on in amazement as Pellegrini went with two up front against one of the best possession based sides in world soccer and gave them an extra man in the middle to dictate the tempo of the game. Pellegrini then did the same against Liverpool on Sunday, another team who love to keep the ball and have defenders like Emre Can stepping into midfield to create overloaded situations. Playmakers Phillipe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling were dragging City’s center backs Vincent Kompany (who again looked shaky) and Eliaquim Mangala all over the place as they didn’t have the numbers in midfield to quell Liverpool’s rapid attacks.
In the first half City coped with their numerical disadvantage in the middle relatively well, as Yaya Toure marauded forward and Fernandinho fought fires in front of City’s back four. But Fernandinho got tired and with Toure not pulling his weight defensively, along with Samir Nasri and David Silva in the second half, Liverpool pressed, pushed and harassed City (look at those numbers from Opta, above) until a moment of genius from Coutinho arrived to seal the win. Pellegrini argued after the match that two “beautiful goals” were the difference, yet his side recorded just one shot on goal (Edin Dzeko’s first half goal) which was there lowest total in any game so far this season. Liverpool’s strikes from Jordan Henderson and Coutinho were sublime, there’s no two ways about it. But the way Pellegrini is setting up his team against big sides who are able to keep the ball and punish slack play is bordering on naivety.
[ RELATED: Watch full match replays ]
Playing two up front against teams like Newcastle, who City beat 5-0 last weekend, will often work. But against the top teams in the Premier League it does not work with the players they are using in the system. Nasri, Silva and Toure are all great going forward but won’t provide balance, defensively. Just look at City’s record against the top five this season. 1-1 draws home and away against Chelsea. A 2-0 defeat at home to Arsenal and a 2-2 draw away, beating 10-man Manchester United 1-0 at home and now splitting victories with Liverpool. A 4-3-3 formation with Silva given a free role in-behind Aguero is their best formation, and having one of James Milner or Jesus Navas on the wing means they will get at least one attacker willing to work back and help out defensively.
[ RELATED: Latest Premier League standings ]
When all is said and done at the end of the season, City’s fans, players and Pellegrini may have a horrible feeling of ‘what might have been.’ Chelsea have hardly been in sensational form of late, but City have failed to take advantage of that due to their own tactical naivety. Whether or not they have progressed since winning the title last season remains to be seen, but Pellegrini’s persistence to play two up front means he is piling unnecessary pressure on himself as Sheikh Mansour and the directors at City will have a big decision to make this summer as to who will be their manager next season.
CHELSEA CLINCH LEAGUE CUP BY SHUTTING DOWN SPURS
After City’s damaging defeat, it was a really good weekend for Chelsea even though they didn’t play in a PL match. The Blues now know they can go eight points clear of City in the title race by winning their game in hand, and on Sunday they lifted the first piece of silverware on offer in England for the 2014-15 season.
Chelsea beat Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 at Wembley to win the League Cup as Jose Mourinho celebrated the first trophy of his second spell in charge of Chelsea. It’s safe to say he thoroughly enjoyed this one, as it was his third League Cup success in charge of Chelsea and his first major title since he won La Liga with Real Madrid in 2012.
[ RELATED: Mourinho hails Zouma ]
Spurs started brighter with Christian Eriksen hitting the crossbar, but then the Blues ground out a typically resolute display with John Terry prodding home a goal right on half time and Diego Costa’s deflected shot just before the hour mark sealed the victory. As the rain poured down at Wembley Stadium in the second half, Spurs had the life sucked out of them by a Chelsea squad who often resemble ‘Dementors’ from the Harry Potters series. Mauricio Pochettino’s side dropped points at West Ham last Sunday, were knocked out of the Europa League by Fiorentina last Thursday and then succumbed to an oppressive Chelsea outfit.
Mourinho’s decision to replace suspended central midfielder Nemanja Matic with young French center back Kurt Zouma raised plenty of eyebrows. But it was a masterstroke. Zouma clogged up the area in front of Chelsea’s back four, stopping Harry Kane dropping deep and Eriksen getting on the ball. Terry, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanvoic and Cesar Azpilicueta put in another assured defensive display but Mourinho reserved special praise for Zouma after the match, calling him “our Marcel Desailly” after the former Chelsea and French international star. High praise indeed, as Mourinho and his squad lifted the first of what should be many trophies this season.
[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]
The Premier League title seems all but assured after City continue to stumble, but can the “Special One” deliver the Champions League to Stamford Bridge this season? That’s the next big challenge for his squad, as they will be buoyed by a victory parade around Wembley on Sunday and all the good vibes that brings. Plus, judging by the video above taken during the second half of the League Cup final, Mourinho seems pretty relaxed about everything…
LIVERPOOL’S “LITTLE MAGICIAN” CRUCIAL TO TOP FOUR HOPES
For the second Sunday running Coutinho delivered a stunning strike to set Liverpool on their way. The Reds are now unbeaten in 11 Premier League matches and have gone on a remarkable run since losing 3-0 to arch-rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford back on December 14.
[ RELATED: Three things we learned from Liverpool’s win ]
Now they are in fifth place, two points behind the Red Devils and just three points behind Arsenal in third. Liverpool looks unstoppable and Coutinho gives them the ‘X-factor” they have been lacking for most of the season. The 22-year-old Brazilian signed a new long-term deal last month and his incisive runs, trickery on the ball and sublime vision in and around the box means that although Luis Suarez is long gone, the Reds now look capable of carving open teams clinically with Daniel Sturridge back fit and Sterling also firing on all cylinders.
[ RELATED: Rodgers says top four is real possibility ]
Liverpool have the momentum and are the team to beat with eight wins from their last 10 matches. Just like last season, they are hitting peak form at the perfect time. They came up short in their pursuit of the title in 2013-14, but right now you’d be a brave man to bet against them finishing in the top this season. After their victory against Manchester City on Sunday, manager Brendan Rodgers claimed that if Liverpool finished fourth this season it would be a better achievement than finishing second last season.
It’s hard to argue with that, as Jordan Henderson smashed in a beauty to show he can ease the blow of Steven Gerrard’s impending departure, while Adam Lallana had the following to say about the crucial win.
“It’s a massive win for us, we’ve got momentum,” Lallana told Sky Sports afterwards. “They [Man City] are the champions and I thought we thoroughly deserved it today. They came back into it but the lads have got fighting spirit and the little magician [Coutinho] at the end coming up with another wonderful goal. With players like that, we are going to go far.”
MIDWEEK MADNESS – ARE YOU READY?
Above is the video recap from the eight games in Week 27 and on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, you will get pretty distracted during your afternoon’s at work as a full slate of PL matches is coming your way. It’s okay, I’m sure your boss will understand. After all, it’s the Premier League.
[ WATCH LIVE: Stream every game via Live Extra ]
Above is the link to stream every game live online or on the app via Live Extra, and here’s five storylines to keep an eye on as the midweek madness ensues…
1. Can the Hammers bring Chelsea back down to earth?
2. Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, Man United all face tough tests as top four race heats up
3. Will Saints snap back into life at home to Crystal Palace?
4. Relegation battles, local pride – Aston Villa vs. West Brom, Hull vs. Sunderland
5. USMNT battle at the Britannia – Geoff Cameron vs. Tim Howard
Premier League Playback comes out every Monday as PST’s Editor and Lead Writer takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.