Things have gotten very bleak, very quickly for Manchester City. Despite hovering close to Chelsea in the EPL around New Year’s, the team has fallen apart at the seams. Despite the brilliance of Sergio Aguero and sporadic bits of improvisation by David Silva, it’s been a Spring to forget for Pellegrini. The 4-2 loss at Old Trafford only has put an exclamation point on a known fact: things must change, and quickly.
The game started brightly for City, who pressed high and early. Pellegrini fielded a 4-5-1, with Milner sitting below Aguero and supporting both Toure and Fernandinho midfield. However, rather than sit back and defend, they man-marked and pressed and forced United into long-balls and give-aways. They opened the scoring thanks to brilliant movement and a nice combination in the box by Silva and Aguero, but neither team had a full grip on the game. It was exhilarating, end-to-end action, a delight to watch for both neutrals and fans of the two teams.
Despite conceding early, United stayed confident and worked the ball from side-to-side with ease. LVG’s decision to field two midfielders in defense, Blind and Valencia, has helped the side retain the ball and build attacks on the flanks. Also, his faith in seemingly cast away players like Young, Fellaini, and Mata while ignoring big last names like Falcao and Di Maria has paid rich dividends. His 4-1-2-3 formation has brought the best out of all three. If you had told a United fan that neither Falcao nor Rooney nor RVP would approach 20 goals this season but the team would finish in the UCL, he’d have assumed a sloggish, defensive dogfight of a team.
Instead, LVG’s formation has freed the team to experiment and overlap and play passing triangles all over the field. Both Young and Mata look comfortable and confident cutting inside to shoot and pushing up to support Wayne Rooney, whose tireless running and brilliant hold-up play set the stage for many of United’s best attacks. It’s a throwback to 2007, when he played as a sole striker and United won the EPL (and even thrashed Roma 7:1 in a UCL tie). Less strikers equals more goals? Unlike, say, 2004, Rooney now has the maturity up top to not run himself into the ground or get foolish red cards.
While it’s joy for United, it’s despair at City. Increasingly, Pellegrini does not appear the manager to turn things around. His 4-5-1 played United close, but his decision to throw on Samir Nasri at the half for James Milner gave the impetus in midfield and game to United. The 4-2-2-2 simply isn’t working, in large part because Sergio Aguero’s strike partners have failed to fill the shoes of summer departure Alvaro Negredo. It’s mid-April and City’s petrodollars are hoping to cling onto a UCL spot – it’s amazing the difference a year can make.