Pitchside Europe

Mourinho trumps Pellegrini again, but City boss only has himself to blame

There is no margin for error at the top.

Most of the little things need to go your way, and the big decisions have to be spot on.

Much was made of Jose Mourinho’s record over Manuel Pellegrini – six wins, a defeat and a draw before this match. But this season is the first where the pair are on an equal footing of sorts; Pellegrini never previously had the resources to match Mourinho’s when they faced each other.

Before Manchester City and Chelsea had even taken to the field in their enthralling Premier League clash on Monday, Pellegrini got his big decision wrong.

His City side have been rampant in recent months, scoring for fun and – the occasional clanger aside – looking more composed defensively than earlier in the season.

However, a late injury to Fernandinho and the unavailability of Javi Garvia threw a spanner in Pellegrini’s works. With Sergio Aguero out injured, the Chilean had already been forced into one major change, but Edin Dzeko has been unfortunate not to start matches so that problem was easily solved.

How to replace the unfussy, vital Fernandinho – whose excellent positional play and superb mobility sets the tone for City’s dominant midfield – was a trickier poser.

But the decision to field gaffe-prone, ageing centre-half Martin Demichelis as an anchorman was negligent at best, criminal at worst.

Pellegrini seems to think that the ability to tackle is the key attribute to a defensive midfielder. While recovery and redistribution of the ball is indeed the fundamental of the anchorman position, the modern game – where big tackles are rare – deems that most of these recoveries are the result of interceptions, of dominating the space between the opposition’s midfield and attack. Therefore, positioning, anticipation and mobility are hugely important to the role.

Sure, Demichelis is good in the air and can snap into a slide-tackle. While he has a greater tendency to get caught out of position than some of his contemporaries, his ability to cover is largely sufficient in the centre-back role to which he is accustomed, a role that a. covers less ground than the anchorman and b. has the benefit of a defensive partner.

His lack of mobility and lack of instinctive anticipation mean he cannot play as a holding midfielder, however. He certainly cannot play that role in a 4-4-2 – a variant of which City used on Monday – a formation where the centre of midfield can seem to encompass the whole pitch at times, particularly when the game is being stretched by Chelsea’s mobile, free-running equivalents.

And this is not with hindsight – it was called by this pundit and thousands of fans the moment the team-sheet was announced, but Pellegrini stubbornly continued with the ploy – even after one of Demichelis’ plentiful errors led to the move that saw Chelsea score the game’s only goal.

But that error – which allowed Eden Hazard to set the ball rolling – was not the sole negative contribution to Demichelis’ presence.

A function of a poor defensive midfielder is a lack of control of the midfield; City have absolutely dominated opponents in this realm, but on Monday they were second best.

A secondary function of a poor defensive midfielder is the exposure given to attacking full-backs – Chelsea had so much joy out wide on Monday that Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandr Kolarov, two of the best in their position in the league, had their worst collective performance of the season.

Pellegrini is an excellent systemic coach but, for all his experience, he does not appear to have grasped the basic tenets of defensive tactics. That much can be seen in all the teams he has managed, teams like Villarreal and Malaga, who played beautiful attacking football but were entertainingly slack at the back. It has been seen this season, where City’s recovery from a dopey start has been entirely down to goals, goals and more goals.

But the big matches against the best teams are unlikely to be free-scoring enough for City’s firepower to be the sole decisive factor; ‘proper’ teams (and there are currently very few of those in a transitional Premier League) defend from front to back, make it exceptionally difficult for the opposition to create chances, and are unlikely to ever concede more than one or two at worst.

I wrote earlier in the season that the two Manchester clubs had made poor decisions by hiring coaches who have not won a trophy between them in top-flight European football. While David Moyes’ struggles are more noted, I remain to be convinced by Pellegrini.

At least Pellegrini strongly commits to an attacking, aesthetically-pleasing system; he also has the benefits or limitless resources with which to pack his squad with quality that is second-to-none.

A few weeks ago, when City were in their free-scoring pomp, players, club officials and pundits heralded a side that could win the quadruple.

While Pellegrini is likely to break his trophy duck, that level of dominance is unlikely until the club learns how to win the tight, top-level matches.

Reda Maher – on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport