In the past we’ve written about how Manuel Pellegrini’s tactics at Manchester City have traditionally called for a narrow 4-4-2 at Manchester City to control possession, play neat, quick passes in the attacking third and to drag the defense out of position. At its best, Pellegrini’s City has been an irresistible attacking force that can score at the same rate as the renowned 13-14 Liverpool side. However, heading into this season we had really only see Pellegrini’s City at its best for about 2/3 of a season total—the first half of the 13-14 campaign and the last third of the 14-15 season.

Pellegrini’s classic 4-4-2 started brightly.

The best stretch we saw under Pellegrini came in early 2013-14 when an in-form Alvaro Negredo partnered Sergio Aguero up top and the duo were flanked by David Silva and Jesus Navas or Samir Nasri out wide. In practice the formation looked something like this:

manchester-city-4-4-2

It’s not an exaggeration to say that City’s attacking success rises and falls on how the system makes use of Sergio Aguero, David Silva, and Yaya Toure. In the above system, all three players could be at their best. Aguero didn’t have to drop deep to assist in build-up play because Negredo handled that. Silva had space in the central areas even with Negredo dropping deep because the two Spaniards had a good understanding and Negredo knew how to leave space for Silva. It also helped that Jesus Navas stayed wide, which further opened the central areas. Further, because of the intelligent positioning of Negredo and Navas, Yaya Toure also had plenty of space to run into from deeper positions.

Sometimes City’s 4-4-2 became much too narrow.

But this is not always how it has worked for Pellegrini’s City. After Negredo and Navas both suffered a major drop in form the Citizens’ attack began to sputter. The culprit was a congested central area as Samir Nasri tended to drift inward just like Silva and Edin Dzeko lacked the positional smarts and hold-up ability of Alvaro Negredo. Thus you ended up with an average position map that looked more like this:

manchester-city-too-narrow

It was no surprise that City began to struggle for goals at this point. Teams could sit deep and narrow and generally frustrate the City attack without much trouble. Short of a bit of set piece wizardry from Toure or Silva or a golazo from either of those two or Aguero, City typically struggled to break through opposition defenses.

There was a further difficulty here as well. Of City’s front four, only one of the normal four could really be said to have an ability to run directly at the defense and open up space for himself—and that was Aguero. And even there, Aguero can do that but if you want to see his best you really need him shooting the gaps in the box getting balls played into his feet from wide or as a through ball.

Additionally, none of the City attackers possessed much pace which limited City’s ability to counter attack and made the City attack a bit more one-dimensional. When you played City you needed to deny Silva space, cut off the passing lanes to Aguero and generally look to stay deep and compact so as to further limit the room that City’s attackers had in the attacking third. If you did that, you’d generally do well.

All of that is what makes the signing of Raheem Sterling such a boon for City.

Adding Sterling injected both pace and direct attacking into a side desperately needing both.

Pellegrini clearly saw he had a problem. Indeed, you could read the signing of Wilfried Bony, a far better all-around striker than Dzeko, as an attempt to patch the issue last January. But it failed due largely to Bony’s late start with the team following the African Cup of Nations. That change alone wouldn’t fix this team. They needed better movement in the attacking third to be sure, but they also needed a quick player on the edges to force defenses to defend the entire width of the pitch and to create space for Silva and Aguero.

Enter Raheem Sterling:

sterling-wide-manchester-city-v-chelsea

In the above clip you can see how Sterling’s pace transforms the City attack. This is a simple counter attack off a midfield turnover by Chelsea and the Blues have no answer for Sterling’s pace. You can’t really imagine any of City’s other attacks pulling off a run like this. Silva and Nasri don’t have the speed and Navas would never make the right pass to set up the chance.

It’s notable, however, that despite Navas’s struggles Pellegrini has preferred him to Nasri in most matches this season. By deploying Navas and Sterling in wide areas, he creates more space for Silva in the center than the Spaniard has ever had under Pellegrini. It’s no surprise that giving Silva more space has coincided with City scoring more goals.

That said, there’s something even more interesting about Pellegrini’s use of Sterling. In last week’s match against Watford the Hornets set up in something like a 5-4-1 in defense. This gave them three deep central defenders and two midfielders which could frustrate Silva in the middle. But by using two outside defenders and two wide midfielders Watford also limited the space that Sterling and Navas had in wide areas. As a result, City struggled mightily in the attacking third and only ever looked like scoring when they forced a turnover by Watford and could turn that into a quick scoring chance.

At halftime Pellegrini made an ingenious move to break the Watford defense. He took off the ineffective Navas for Nasri and then put Silva and Nasri in wide roles with Sterling playing down the middle. Nasri and Silva took slightly tucked in roles with Nasri on the left and Silva on the right. This also allowed Aleksandar Kolarov and Bacary Sagna to have more room to get forward.

Within two minutes the change paid off as City got the ball wide to Sagna who had taken up a much more advanced position overlapping with the tucked-in Silva. Sterling, meanwhile, looked to fire between the gaps in the Watford defense. Here is the result:

sterling-manchester-city-v-watford

I expect the addition of Sterling will allow us to finally see Pellegrini at his managerial best. When his teams are firing they are fluid and thrilling to watch in the attack as they throw players forward and you never know where one of them may pop up.

Due to the absence of a Sterling-like player in the squad, City’s attack has generally struggled (or at least “struggled” by City’s standards) over the past 12 months. But one suspects the addition of Sterling will give the team a new element that makes them a more entertaining side and allows us to once again see Silva, Aguero, and Toure at their best. If that is what happens then it wouldn’t be a shock to see City when their third title in five seasons.

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