Man City will benefits from a bolder Manuel Pellegrini as tough games loom
If this is indeed Manuel Pellegrini's final season at Manchester City, with the club reportedly pursuing Pep Guardiola, the Chilean will know after the next six matches whether or not he's likely to go out with a bang.
By the end of February, City will have played Dynamo Kiev in the away leg of their last-16 tie in the Champions League. They could be in the fifth round of the FA Cup, facing the potential of another kind draw. They'll have had tough matches against Leicester and Tottenham and will know how the top of the table is shaping up. And, perhaps most crucially, they'll have played the League Cup final with Liverpool.
The reason this stretch is important is because around this stage in 2014-15, the campaign fell apart for City. They crashed out of the FA Cup, losing 2-0 at home to Championship side Middlesbrough before Barcelona had free reign of the Etihad in the 2-1 defeat. Pellegrini's team managed five defeats in seven games and while a similar run of form would leave this season on the ropes, conversely a string of positive results could set up March, April and May for fireworks and victory parades.
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It's very much to Pellegrini's credit that City made it to the League Cup final with their 3-1 victory over Everton on Wednesday night. One of the biggest criticisms he's faced during his time in England is his lack of a "Plan B." When things have been going badly, he's trusted too much in the players that have dug him out of holes in the past.
The Chilean rarely takes the opposition into account when naming his team, believing that if his side play to their best, they'll beat whoever they're up against regardless of how the opposition are set up. That can sometimes lead to problems, as it disregards the notion that the other team will target City's weaknesses. Pellegrini even seems to do his substitutions at set times, swapping players on or after the hour mark and frequently making his changes like-for-like.
But it was his daring side that did the business in the victory over Everton. With the tie finely poised at 1-1 at half time on the night, the boss knew his side needed to score twice and he made one change to pile on the pressure. City have played best this season when the game has been stretched, so he opened up the middle in taking off Fabian Delph and overloaded both wings by bringing on Jesus Navas. It's little coincidence the home side created so many more good chances after the change, as the Toffees found it difficult to keep both the wide men quiet and keep it tight around lone front man Sergio Aguero.
When the Chilean decided to go for broke and really put the visitors under cosh, it would have been an easy decision to swap Kevin De Bruyne for Raheem Sterling. In the past, that like-for-like change might have been what he would have gone for -- it would have kept City's shape balanced while also putting fresh legs into the game. However, on Wednesday he gambled instead and it paid off.
Yaya Toure hadn't been having a bad game in the middle, but he was in a more restricted role. With David Silva higher up the pitch, the Ivorian was partnering Fernandinho in a holding role, yet Everton rarely broke forward. The more mobile Brazilian stayed in position covering the centre while De Bruyne was given a free role behind Aguero.
It was a daring move that could have backfired and left huge gaps in the middle, especially with Nicolas Otamendi diving in on anything that moved at the back and the club's defensive record of recent weeks.
Throughout City's poor form for much of 2015, Pellegrini reverted to safety. He didn't take these sorts of risks and thereby gained a reputation for predictability. It didn't help the club get out of the rut they'd fallen into. Back in the their 2-1 victory at Watford, one of the key factors in changing the game was the manager shifting the shape and bringing on a striker for a central defender. It got confused looks from the away end and even more baffled voices made their thoughts heard on social media, but it gave City control of the match.
It's almost as if the manager has remembered in 2016 that he can take risks with his changes. That could be key for the team, as he looks to add some consistency to what could be his final year in the Etihad dugout.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney