x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

When Pellegrini barks it usually carries some bite

Manuel Pellegrini is a splendidly undemonstrative manager. That is why when he does come out with an outburst at the referee, if he harks on a theme, there is usually good reason.

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini is usually taciturn. So if he complains about something people tend to listen. Alex Livesey / Getty Images
Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini is usually taciturn. So if he complains about something people tend to listen. Alex Livesey / Getty Images

Manuel Pellegrini is a splendidly undemonstrative manager.

Where others rant and rail after games, he seems always astonishingly calm, his demeanour undemonstrative, his words tinder dry.

That is why when he does come out with an outburst at the referee, as he did after the Uefa Champions League defeat to Barcelona, is seems so telling and why, if he harks on a theme, there is usually good reason. After the 3-0 victory over Manchester United there was no grandstanding; no talk about taking control of Manchester or even much about the title race.

Pellegrini wanted to talk about his side’s “balance” and how “compact” it had been.

Maybe there is an element of taking the goals for granted but his enthusiasm was understandable. His claim that United had not had a chance was exaggerated – but only just.

It is true that stifling United is not anything like the task it used to be, and it is true there was a 20-minute spell towards the end of the first half when the game became oddly stretched, anything but compact.

But it is also true that Manchester City corrected that in the second half to record their fifth successive clean sheet. They have not conceded in the league since the home defeat to Chelsea at the beginning of February.

The leakiness that looked as though it might cost them the league has been, if not solved, then at least partly rectified.

It helps that David Silva in the past two games has been used in a central creative role, replacing one of the forwards, instead of on the left.

It may be that that switch was forced on Pellegrini by the injury to Sergio Aguero rather than something planned, but it has added an extra figure in midfield, even if Silva isn’t exactly noted for his ball-winning qualities.

Simply his presence makes a difference.

If the Spaniard is dropping deep and pulling wide, buzzing across the creative third, the opposing holding midfielder has constantly to be alert to where he is; he can’t leave it to the centre-backs.

That, in turn, has an impact on how much focus he can apply to dealing with City’s runners from deep or to helping create play for his own side.

United’s three-man midfield was so overwhelmed by what was happening on Tuesday that David Moyes had to change shape after 10 minutes.

But it is not just Silva’s position. There has been a more general tightening.

City may not yet come close to Arrigo Sacchi’s ideal of 25 metres from the front of the team to the back, but they have been far closer in recent weeks. Most significantly, though, the understanding between Fernandinho and Yaya Toure at the back of midfield, which was always going to be key to City’s season, seems to be developing.

It is not as simple as one sitting and the other going forward; it is about developing a defensive framework to protect the two centre-backs, the absence of which has been one of the reasons that Vincent Kompany – as well as Martin Demichelis – has made so many defensive errors this season.

In that, using an attacking midfielder rather than two strikers is probably of assistance; there is no longer the danger of a vast space opening up between the back of midfield and the forward line, one that Toure has tended to fill by loping forwards, often in neglect of his defensive duties.

Think of that Chelsea game, when City seemed so intoxicated by their own attacking brilliance that they were almost caught by a four-on-one break midway through the first half.

Chelsea are an exceptional counter-attacking side and Norwich City, Stoke City, Hull City, Fulham and United offer nothing like the same sort of threat, but hints of that sort of indiscipline have been far less frequent since.

Saturday’s opponents Arsenal, even in their depleted, battered state, offer the sternest test since Chelsea, who by dint of playing earlier in the day could have moved six points clear again by kick-off.

But City must know that if they come through this with a win, they can afford a defeat away to either Liverpool or Everton – their two toughest remaining fixtures – and still claim the title.

If they do, the scintillating forward play would claim the headlines but the defensive tightening would have played its part.

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