It’s not hard to look at Pellegrini’s tactical setup in City’s 2-1 away defeat to Everton within the context of a two leg playoff, the second leg of which will be played at the Etihad. Everything – from the starting XI to Fernando’s substitute appearance in the 90th minute – should be viewed within this two-tie paradigm.
It was always to be safety first, which surely explains a three-man midfield with Fabian Delph playing alongside Fernandinho. Sagna remained at right-back while Gael Clichy made a rare starting appearance at left-back. Aguero assumed the role of central striker, flanked on the left by David Silva and on the right by Kevin de Bruyne. Willy Cabellero was treated to his now customary League Cup start.
On the opposite side, Martinez’s only two surprises were Tom Cleverley playing on the left in front of Baines and Muhammed Besic in central midfield (alongside former City man, Gareth Barry). Wigan 2013 FA Cup winner Joel Robles started between Everton’s sticks.
Pellegrini’s decision to go 4-2-3-1 with Yaya Toure as City’s #10 was a tactical decision that had multiple ramifications on City’s performance, and had it not been for Lukaku’s 78th minute winner, might have positioned City exactly where Pellegrini would’ve hoped before the second leg. Pellegrini’s intent was surely to add more control to the midfield and prevent Everton finding open space on the counter (something that, to Pellegrini’s credit, happened rarely).
Pellegrini’s more conservative approach – which again, is entirely understandable considering the context – had three problematic consequences. Firstly, when Everton had the ball, Yaya appeared to be deployed in some sort of free role where he floated in the space between Aguero and the deeper CMs. This meant that Barry, Everton’s primary first phase passer, had too much time and space on the ball to build Everton’s play. At 34 (and 35 in February), it really is a testament to Barry’s ability that he can still function as a proper holding midfielder in matches against a side of City’s quality. That said though, it was naïve and disappointing to see City afford him as much time and space he had, and whether that’s on Yaya or Pellegrini, it’s impossible to know.
Secondly, Yaya at #10, flanked by Silva and de Bruyne, made Everton’s defensive task far too easy. Without any real off the ball running – especially in behind Everton’s back line – City essentially forced themselves to play in front of Everton’s back line. Offensive pressure in the final third is great, but when that pressure is little more than lateral passing, it’s difficult to make any real goal threat. The lack of out and out wingers was further compounded by playing Clichy and Sagna, City’s two more defensive fullbacks. In total, Clichy and Sagna combined to play just three crosses (the same amount that Kolarov played against Watford), all of which came before the 28th minute.
Finally, for all the stability that Delph and Fernandinho were supposed to bring to City’s defensive shape, they were consistently gifting Everton space between the lines and often appeared to have no understanding of each other’s movements or responsibilities (see also: 34:30 when Fernandinho and Delph both ran to mark the same Everton player leaving Barkley in open space behind them). Speaking of, below is Barkley’s touch map against City (courtesy of WhoScored), in which, you can see he had far too many touches around the 18 yard box than he should have considering he was playing against a deep midfield pivot.
Otamendi was, until one error late in the game, nearly flawless. He was his usual busy and aggressive self, recording eight clearances, five interceptions, three tackles, and one block. And despite all that, he most impressive in the way he dealt with Lukaku, who early in the game, was clinging to that side of the field and isolating Otamendi from the rest of City’s backline.
Lastly, Muhamed Besic was fantastic, sitting (and sliding and tackling) alongside Barry in the center of Everton’s defense. The 23 year old, carrying on from whatever form he appeared to find in the second half against Tottenham, dealt quite well with Yaya Toure and David Silva (who again had too quiet of a game), limiting the space either were afforded, tackling well in the central areas outside Everton’s box and holding both players without a key pass.
I said lastly, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what I believe to be Jesus Navas’ most composed moment in a City shirt. Finding himself through on goal but with the ball on his left foot, the Spaniard calmly slotted past Joel’s outside leg to momentarily equalize. That, combined with being denied what was surely a stonewall penalty, meant Navas made an impressive impact off the bench.