Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini floored by flaw in football philosophy
Jose Mourinho ruthlessly exposed the deficiencies in the system
If you listened hard, there were some classic Jose Mourinho touches to take in when he held court in Manuel Pellegrini's backyard late on Monday night.
The deft faux slip-up, for example, when he called the Manchester City manager "Pellegrino", recalling to mind his press conference discussion of Tito Vilanova soon after he had poked the Barcelona coach in the eye while managing Real Madrid. "And as for Pito Vilanova or whatever his name is… I don't have anything to say," Mourinho said back then. "The referee or the fourth official or the TV cameras will tell the story...' Pito being Spanish slang for "prick".
It was impossible for Pellegrini, an individual utterly uninterested in the cult of personality, to compete with this – and all the more so since a flaw in his own club's football philosophy had given Mourinho the grounds to swagger and gloat.
That flaw is the absence of a lower, slower gear and it was manifest in the 1-0 defeat to Chelsea. Other managers might have concluded that Monday night was one for "the handbrake", to borrow Arsène Wenger's phrase, especially when Pellegrini's midfield starting options excluded Fernandinho, James Milner or Javi Garcia – the three players he might have turned to in order to match Chelsea's suffocating work in the central area.
But five men in midfield will always be a compromise too far for Pellegrini's City. Milner and Garcia remained steadfastly rooted to the bench because, as Pellegrini explained in a significant exposition of his own football philosophy before December's home game with Arsenal, he doesn't do compromise.
"We always try to play creatively and not to destroy what the other team wants to do," he said back then. "We are trying to find a style of play and changing names and the team plays exactly the same."
Pellegrini really meant this. It was the point that singularly animated him privately during a press lunch before Christmas – an occasion that revealed him to be a far more personable individual than his press conferences suggest.
Fernandinho has expanded the point, effectively saying that all players are subservient to the attackers: "My position is to provide for them. It's like you journalists: you come here and get the interview, and in your office your editor will shape it better."
While the benefits of the free-spirit philosophy were borne out in the six goals City reaped against Arsenal at the Etihad, the flaw was exposed in the way that they conceded three in that game which could have ended 9-6.
The beguiling home match with Liverpool on Boxing Day was the same: an immense game, as play flowed this way and that, but with City displaying that same constant capacity to concede.
There is conjecture over who should take the blame for Monday: perhaps Martin Demichelis for being overwhelmed; perhaps Yaya Touré for wandering off and leaving him. But it was actually the system. City adhered to their two-striker set-up even though they lacked the holding midfielders of muscularity and pace required for a 4-4-2. Pellegrini's only substitution was a forward for a forward.
He is inherently more pragmatic than this. He certainly was at Villarreal, where there was adaptation from him to the needs of each game, and it is hard to avoid the impression that he is now steadfastly adhering to the Barcelona ethos which his new employers have told him they want inculcated throughout their club. Barcelona, too, play only one way and it is for that reason that they can take a real beating at times. The two legs of last season's Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich – aggregate score 7-0 – is a case in point.
The defeat to Chelsea is a serious challenge to City's indomitability at the start of an onerous period. In the next six weeks, City face Barcelona twice, Chelsea again in the FA Cup, Manchester United and Arsenal in the Premier League. Then they travel to Anfield and Goodison. Doubts for the first Barcelona fixture include Fernandinho (possibly back in two weeks), Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero. Talk of defeating the Catalans has hushed a little.
For all that, it would be grossly premature to say that a flaw in City is fatal. One narrow defeat should not erase the fact that they are capable of crushing teams with their pace and intensity, week after week. City's players all like to talk about the attritional win at Newcastle, earlier this month, as evidence of their ability to fight. Their squad remains the strongest, with most potential to take the title. It's just that we know more now about how they can be beaten.
Likening his own team's philosophy to Wenger's last month, Pellegrini said that free-flowing football was "very important for your mentality" and that both Arsenal and City played "as a big team". Winning the title at the expense of Chelsea and Mourinho – antithesis and anathema to him in equal measure – would quite obviously bring him a deep sense of personal satisfaction. Until then, he'll just have to live with the insults.
Mourinho v Pellegrini: Head-to-head
Monday's win at the Etihad extended Jose Mourinho's fine record against Manuel Pellegrini. The Portuguese has lost just one of nine games with his adversary, against Malaga when in charge of Real.
Mar 2011 Real M 7-0 Malaga
Oct 2011 Malaga 0-4 Real M
Jan 2012 Real M 3-2 Malaga
Jan 2012 Malaga 0-1 Real M
Mar 2012 Real M 1-1 Malaga
Dec 2012 Malaga 3-2 Real M
May 2013 Real M 6-2 Malaga
Oct 2013 Chelsea 2-1 Man C
Feb 2014 Man C 0-1 Chelsea
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