Explaining Manuel Pellegrini’s tactics and the future of Manchester City

Manuel Pellegrini Manchester City

Manuel Pellegrini is a tactical mastermind

Manuel Pellegrini takes over the reigns at Manchester City Football Club after his predecessor couldn’t live up to the high expectations set by the Arab board. His tenure at Malaga saw the club reach the quarter finals of the Champions League, only to fall against Dortmund in the final minutes.

Pellegrini is renowned for his remarkable tactical aptitude and his ability to fit into the situation with his own philosophy. He became famous during his time at Villarreal when the club achieved a Champions League spot much against everyone’s expectations.

His tactics revolved around 4-4-2, which was actually a 4-2-2-2. It started off with a classic 4-3-1-2 , with Juan Roman Riquelme revolutionizing the no.10 role. He was by far one of the best play-makers of his generation when he played behind those strikers under Pellegrini.

As Villarreal progressed, they shifted to a 4-4-2 with the philosophy of interiores Interiores simply put are wingers that cut inside and play centrally when their team has the ball. In this way, you could actually deem it as a 4-2-2-2. Here’s a graphical look:

The two center-backs, namely Diego Godin and Gonzalo Javier Rodriguez , were physically tough and never joined in during attacking transitions. The full-backs however were a key element in this philosophy, as they provided width by bombarding down the flanks and coming back in time to defend. Capdevila and Javi Venta were the ones chosen by Pellegrini as full-backs, and no one else in Europe could perform like they did.

In defensive midfield there were two holders, who held an even bigger role than the full-backs. The biggest point to realize here is that we mustn’t confuse it with a pivot. A pivot has one defensive and one attack minded player. At Villarreal , both defensive midfielders under Pellegrini defended deep when they didn’t have the ball and were usually seen covering the flanks for the full-backs who had pushed forward. Marcos Senna and Jeremy Toulalan were propelled into stardom for their role as defensive midfielders.

The unique part about Villarreal’s defense is that during the attack, they push up and play the off-side trap. However, when the ball was lost they fell-back deep and retraced their steps all the way to their penalty box along with the defensive midfielders who tried to break up the opposition play. A lot like parking the bus, but not exactly the same.

Then we come to the interiores, who used to start out on the wide but they kept drifting into the center and play the majority of the game there. In all honesty , though Pellegrini has furiously denied it, there is usually a use of central players in the wings, that gives the whole plan away. A Mezzala is used or a player playing on the wing though he doesn’t belong there, is usually used. Think Gerrard when he was forced to play on the left of midfield for England.

The two forwards upfront had the ability to move on the wings, as the interiores pushed up and had a shot at goal as well. To put it simple, the full-backs, the interiores and the forwards  all had their own fair share of time on the wing.

The essence of this philosophy is that it revolved around possession based football. Triangles popped up in  key areas of the field, which I shall explain when we look into City’s future . However, Pellegrini did show his plan B with Real Madrid against the Catalans, in which he shifted to a different formation and broke down the quick passing of Barcelona. A 75% win percentage out of 48 games wasn’t good enough for Perez, but was commended by Pep Guardiola who said:

“I’d like to congratulate Real Madrid, fantastic opponents and without whom we would never have reached 99 points. Pellegrini and his players have dignified our professions. “

You can’t really class him as a failure at Madrid, simply down to the fact that millions were poured out to bring players before he actually signed the contract. In his own words:

“I can’t get anything out of an orchestra if I have the 10 best guitarists but I don’t have a pianist or a drummer”

As Pellegrini moved on to Malaga, he brought about a change in his own tactics. As he himself says, he is always willing to adapt, but not to an extreme. Here’s a look on a few changes he made to his Malaga side:

Now is when he actually send signals to others that he’s finally admitted that he plays a 4-2-2-2.

The most important role fell on the interiores once again, in this case Cazorla and later Isco, once took up the position. The central midfielders now moved out wide, along with the full-backs and the forwards to provide each other support. This helped the players form little triangles to pass the ball around quickly and carefully, or in other words tiki taka.

Isco of Malaga, 2012

Isco: Pellegrini’s main man at Malaga

The small transparent circles show the area where triangles are more likely to form. Here, I would like to highlight the importance of Santi Cazorla. He did a brilliant job at drifting wide to combine with the full-backs and returning to the center almost immediately to take up the hole behind the strikers.

His loss didn’t affect them much thanks to Isco, who stepped up brilliantly. Versatile players such as these two gave Pellegrini the option of switching tactics in between the game and helped the manager adapt to the situation on his hands. Much of their philosophy however, remained the same as that of Villarreal.

Now, having left Malaga and joined City. It is quite clear that he will take this same philosophy to Manchester. It’s been quite a debate on how he would field the team, with some saying he might make the move towards a 4-3-3, but I can place my bets on two formations that he’ll definitely use. The 4-2-2-2 and the Malaga plan B, 4-2-3-1 .

Here’s a proposed 4-2-2-2:

First thing to clear up is that, all the signings made this season, were by Pellegrini himself. He’s brought in world-class versatile players, which if he could have at his previous clubs, he wouldn’t really be at City.

Manuel Pellegrini’s teams never press or hassle their opponents. When they play the ball, they fall back and defend deep . They retrieve the ball and dominate possession using triangles. Fernandinho should have no problem in fitting into this system as he’s arguably the best at such a role of holding and defending.

The problem that arises here is Yaya Toure, the man who left Barcelona because he was overthrown by Busquets due to a simple reason, defending.

Toure is more attack minded and it would be interesting to see how Pellegrini can control him and make him more defense minded.

I expect Kompany and Nastasic to cement their roles as the favorite center-back pairing cause they are exactly the players Pellegrini likes to work with. One is physical, while the other has a little bit of pace in him and together, they have terrific game-reading capabilities.

On the flanks I can’t see a better pairing than that of Clichy and Zabaleta. They’re more than used to bombarding down the flanks and will now have to do it more often.

The interiores should be new signings Jovetic and Navas. Don’t get me wrong for not fielding Silva, but the only reason I have named the two players are cause they’re new signings and we can talk about their roles. I clearly see Silva being able to play the role Cazorla played at Malaga without any trouble.

Jesus Navas of Man City

Jesus Navas has a big role to play

Jovetic and Navas are of the same breed as they can easily play on the wings and cut in the middle to have a pop at goal.

Upfront, I really like how Pellegrini has gone about with the capture of Negredo. He’s probably one of the few strikers who can drift towards the flanks with ease in the modern game. His partner is fast, nippy and can create space for himself while Negredo will feed on precise through balls.

Once again we see a lot of triangles, and this time we could have a look at it:

The transparent extra circles you see on the arrows that point towards the full-backs movement show that they are able to combine with defensive midfielders as well.

These triangles are like the lungs of the system. Without it, everything will come crashing down. Though it’s not the same as Barcelona’s, it also has it’s own advantages and negatives.

An advantage being that it always gives you options when you’re looking for a pass ,or when you’re moving up the field , you move together as a unit.

Disadvantages being if the full-backs don’t push up, the system doesn’t work. If the defensive midfielders try attacking, which could happen with Toure, then they can all be vulnerable on the counter-attack as they were under Mancini.

Now lets have a look at the 4-2-3-1, which Pellegrini employed with Real Madrid to earn a draw against Barcelona –

The 4-2-3-1 is quite famous in the Premier League, with the pace and physicality of the English game perfectly epitomized by it. From defense to defensive midfield, expect it to be the same as the 4-2-2-2. In my opinion , this formation has more chances of being used than the 4-2-2-2, only due to the fact that, Silva, Navas and Jovetic can be used together.

Silva in the middle can be an anti-interiores, moving from inside to the flanks, while Navas and Jovetic can continue what they did in the 4-2-2-2. Up front, they either have Sergio Aguero and either of Negredo or Dzeko.

The point being that like Pellegrini used Kaka as a second striker, Silva will need to play the exact same role. The best part about this is that the new signing, Jovetic can also be used in the middle to push forward and effectively change the formation back to a 4-2-2-2. One hand signal, and the whole formation changes. Flexibility or may I say Pellegrini at his best.

To conclude this piece, I cannot stress enough on how different Pellegrini is when compared  to the other managers. The only one who’s tactical aptitude can come close to that of the new City manager is maybe the Jose Mourinho of Inter Milan or the Arsene Wenger of Monaco.

No one can accurately predict what the tactician has in mind, a footballing fan can however, only hope that it brings the best out of Manchester City.

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