After thrashing Newcastle 5-0 on Saturday, Manuel Pellegrini vowed his Manchester City side would attack Barcelona just as they had the Magpies. And attack City did, or, at least they were set up to do so.
Pellegrini sent City out in his preferred 4-4-2, with Edin Dzeko joining Sergio Aguero up top in an attempt to take the game to the Catalans. By making this tactical decision though, City’s boss risked leaving his midfield exposed against a potent Barcelona front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar. And while the Blues did get exposed, it wasn’t because of Pellegrini’s tactics.
In the first half, City conceded two goals (both scored by Suarez) — one due to an absolutely dreadful play from skipper Vincent Kompany, and the other from a piece of Barcelona magic. During that initial 45 minutes, Pellegrini’s men looked like they had no business being on the same pitch with Barcelona, and Pellegrini admitted as much.
“We couldn’t put three passes together in the first half,” Pellegrini said. “There was a bit of confusion and we committed a very soft error for the first goal.”
Kompany’s blunder was exactly the type of error that Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano, Barcelona’s center halves, avoided. While avoiding those errors, they each also contributed some brilliant plays to keep City from scoring in the first half. It is this poise under pressure (and some fortunate bounces) that continues to separate the Blues from the top three or four sides in the world.
Rather than acknowledge these minor differences that separate City from Barcelona however, many will be quick to point to Pellegrini’s tactics as the reason for the first leg defeat — and as a larger referendum on the gulf that exists between City and the best teams in the world. But this assessment misses the mark for a major reason: City are at their best when they are attacking. And, to beat a team as good as Barcelona is, you must play in the style that suits you best.
Unlike Chelsea for instance, City aren’t comfortable playing with 11 men behind the ball and hitting on the counter. Before the first leg, it was suggested that Pellegrini would be wise to consider a defensive style, as a 0-0 draw would be an excellent result. While it’s impossible to dispute that a 0-0 result would have been good for Pellegrini’s men, City are almost incapable of achieving that score. City have not finished with that scoreline this entire season.
To then expect them to be able to do so against the Spanish giants is simply unrealistic. Barcelona were always going to bag an away goal, which meant City had to play for a 1-1 draw or a 2-1 victory. And City weren’t going to accomplish that by sitting back.
In the second half, City controlled the play and came close to leveling the score. For the Blues’ boss, it was a frustrating sight.
“We didn’t do until the second half what we wanted to do in the game,” Pellegrini said. “If we played in the first half in the way we did the second, I think we would have done better. We managed to be calmer in the second half, when we pressed well and did well to hang on. We almost got something from the game.”
Of course, “almost” is the key phrase here. To advance into the quarterfinals, City will now have to score at least twice at the Camp Nou. No one will criticize Pellegrini for setting up his side in an attacking style in that upcoming match. Clearly, City will have to attempt to take the game to Barcelona in the second leg.
But had they played to their potential, City would have come away with a first leg lead. If things had gone slightly different and that had occurred, no one would have criticized the manager for his tactics, either. It makes no sense then to place the blame on Pellegrini now simply because his side didn’t hit top gear in a single match.
Charlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.
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