Manuel Pellegrini’s side have routinely struggled whenever they have come up against well organised, quality opposition, and there are a number of changes that can be made
Manchester City’s long-term goals are clear. With the best youth and training facilities in the country, close links to the big-money football boom in China and, of course, Pep Guardiola arriving this summer, you would have to say the future is looking bright.
But what happens in the short-term, the next weeks and months leading up to the end of the current campaign, is anybody’s guess.
Saturday’s 3-1 humbling at the hands of Leicester City put the failings of Manuel Pellegrini’s side into sharp focus. The Chilean will leave the club at the end of the season to make way for Guardiola, and the players have said they are committed to giving him a successful send-off.
But the shambles against Leicester was far from the first of the season, and if Pellegrini is to leave as the club’s most successful ever manager, he has some changes to make.
Guardiola’s arrival is genuinely exciting, but it will have to wait. Here’s what Pellegrini must do now.
It was far from City’s best display of the season, but it was certainly their most solid. The goalless draw against an admittedly toothless Manchester United back in October proved that Pellegrini can set a side up to defend.
Fernando was a key player that day, in probably his best performance of the season, as he sat in front of the defence mopping up loose balls and winning headers. Crucially, this allowed Nicolas Otamendi to stay in his defensive station, not coming flying out to lunge into tackles or aerial challenges. It was also Otamendi’s best performance of the season, and while that was next to Vincent Kompany (who was making his comeback from injury), Fernando’s performance allowed the Argentina centre-back to thrive in the manner he did at Valencia and with his country at the Copa America, namely with a deep-lying midfielder in front of him.
Otamendi’s wild forays up the pitch have caused City problems in recent weeks and, while he himself is guilty given his inclination to do so, he has not been helped by an open midfield – the most obvious example of which being when Ross Barkley scored in the League Cup semi-final second leg.
Fernando has certainly had some shockers of his own this season – notably at Stoke City – but they have largely come when Pellegrini has set his team up to attack, when perhaps a little more caution would be prudent.
A more reserved approach, with Fernando in the starting XI, would go a long way in certain games.
There is a more simple tweak that should improve City’s fortunes at the back. Bacary Sagna has played centre-back in the past and has done well in the role. The Frenchman has been one of City’s best players this season on the right of the back line but, with Pablo Zabaleta now back, he could be moved centrally to replace the increasingly creaky Martin Demichelis.
Vincent Kompany could return to the line-up in the coming weeks – most likely against Dynamo Kyiv towards the end of the month given a youthful team will play in the FA Cup fifth round – meaning Sagna may not need to be shuffled around too much.
But given the captain’s injury struggles he will surely not play every match until the end of the season, and with Mangala’s own injury problems dragging on, Sagna is a simple and effective option.
There is another selection issue that has been a hot topic of discussion for some time: dropping Yaya Toure. It was expected that the midfielder would be rotated in and out of the line-up this season, but up until the FA Cup started in January he has been picked whenever possible.
Having started to tire towards the end of the very first matches of the season, it is no surprise that he looks incapable of keeping pace with the opposition now after featuring in 34 of City’s 38 games so far, and starting 32 of those.
On Saturday he was at times pottering around the pitch no quicker than a pedestrian ushered across the road by a waiting car. But rather than a lack of effort – a barb most often fired in his direction – it may just be the case that he is no longer physically capable of running as much as a Premier League game demands.
Another case to support using Toure more sparingly – certainly a more flattering case – was the fact that he came off the bench against Crystal Palace recently and helped City seal victory with a marvellous cameo display.
With more games than ever coming up in the next few weeks, Pellegrini must surely realise that a more sparing role for his big midfielder is a necessity.
It is somewhat ironic that, after being written off as a tactically inflexible 4-4-2 merchant in his first couple of seasons in England, Pellegrini is now being asked to go back to a 4-4-2.
After all, there is a time and a place for it. Just maybe not against Leicester City when you’ve also told your full-backs to bomb up the pitch, and have picked Yaya Toure in a two-man midfield alongside Fernandinho (we’ll get to Fabian Delph on the left in a moment).
So, when City feel they can play with two strikers, it should be Kelechi Iheanacho who partners Sergio Aguero up front, not Raheem Sterling. The former Liverpool man started centrally again on Saturday but had an afternoon to forget. Given his pace and style of play, games against deep-lying teams are always going to be a tough task for the youngster – his first professional hat-trick, against Bournemouth, came centrally but against a team that left too much space behind them.
Iheanacho is more suited to working his way through tightly packed teams and has already shown this season that a partnership with Aguero could be very promising.
That would also allow Sterling to revert back to the left-hand side (very important given he is the last fit wide man in the squad), and bring an end to the Delph experiment. The former Aston Villa midfielder has looked far better when in the middle of the pitch and usually ends up getting hauled off when he’s been deployed on the wing from the start.
There will be, then, plenty of opportunities to play 4-4-2 in the coming weeks. Just don’t do it against Liverpool in the League Cup final, or Arsenal in the final home game of the season.
Kelechi Iheanacho scored seconds into his second ever senior appearance. Manu Garcia took a couple of minutes. Bersant Celina had a couple of good opportunities on his debut at Norwich City, and set up Sergio Aguero with a delicious cross on Saturday.
City’s best kids know what they are doing, and can be relied upon when needed. Pellegrini has named a host of youngsters on the bench this season, but very few have seen significant action. With Kevin De Bruyne and Jesus Navas both injured, and with games in the league, League Cup, FA Cup and Champions League coming up before the month is out, there’s no reason not to use more of the youngsters.
It’s unrealistic to expect swathes of young lads to start week in, week out, but given the fixture pile-up and injury concerns, the likes of Celina and Garcia, now he returned from injury against Liverpool’s U21s on Sunday, could well contribute to City’s run-in.
Both men, just like Iheanacho, the most senior of the young guns, have the right mentality to play at the top level.
Pellegrini has turned to youth in the FA Cup, and is expected to name essentially an EDS line-up against Chelsea in the next round, but the academy is producing talented, driven young men who are ready to feature in the biggest of moments.