Manchester City suffered a 2-1 defeat at home to FC Barcelona last night. The jury is out on their quality in Europe and barring something absolutely incredible the English champions are on their way out of the competition.
Manuel Pellegrini was bold with his selection and prior to kick off declared that his side could beat any team in Europe. He followed this statement with a 4-4-2 to face Barcelona’s 4-3-3. In England the 4-4-2 is almost in the footballing DNA, or at least it was until a few years ago. Since then 4-4-2 has become a bit of a dirty word. Managers who use it are seen as out-dated and the two central midfielders are seen as ineffective given that most opposition sides, such as Barcelona, put three central midfielders in there.
Pellegrini was criticized for going down this route with City ahead of such an important game. Especially as Barcelona are known to be a possession based side. In fact, only Bayern Munich have averaged more possession per game this season in Europe than Barcelona.
So was the 4-4-2 to blame? Not quite. 4-4-2 is not a bad formation per se. Atletico Madrid used this last season to great effect in the competition, they’ve also used it to beat FC Barcelona. The way in which they use the 4-4-2 is different though. It can often be a 4-2-2-2.
Manchester City didn’t play with enough intensity or purpose to make it work. A central midfield pairing of James Milner and Fernando wasn’t mobile enough or good enough at pressing Barcelona when in possession. This was a huge flaw in the system. Samir Nasri and David Silva were also not the best at pressing from the wide roles and were not quick enough at breaking. The pair worked tirelessly but to little avail in the first half.
Instead they moved as a bank of four, which was easily penetrated by quick FC Barcelona movements as well as with Javier Mascherano moving the ball out of the back with forward runs. When this happened the Man City midfield four was dragged out of position and by-passed by Barca. City opted for the two banks of four 4-4-2 which is not hugely effective anymore. The two forwards didn’t pull players out of position when the ball went the other way and although he tried Edin Dzeko isn’t the best at getting into the channels to make things happen. It just didn’t work.
Against a top level team a 4-4-2 with the players City have is not effective. They relinquished possession and also invited a lot of pressure onto themselves. This in turn often left the back four exposed and resulted in Vincent Kompany making rash runs out of the back four to try and win the ball, which left space in behind that was easily exploited. It was naive from Pellegrini or at least an over estimation of his teams quality. City now have a huge uphill task, even if it wasn’t the 4-4-2 that cost them, but more their interpretation of it.