Sunderland’s trip to the Etihad Stadium on Saturday afternoon was not very rewarding. Aleksandar Kolarov contributed a goal and an assist as Manchester City dominated the match, earning a 3-0 victory over the visiting Black Cats.
The hosts made a host of changes to their lineup from their midweek draw to Borussia Dortmund. The team assumed a 4-2-3-1 shape, but with two forwards in the team. Carlos Tevez played at the front, but Mario Balotelli came in to play as an attacker cutting in from the left. Gareth Barry came back into the side playing in his familiar role as a ball winner in front of the defense.
Martin O’Neill fielded a hybrid 4-4-1-1 formation. The one real shift tactically from the base formation was having James McClean play advanced on the left side, nearly level with attacking midfielder Stephane Sessegnon. Perhaps this was to attempt to keep Kolarov honest in the defensive phase of the game. Steven Fletcher was the lone forward up front.
Sunderland has been quite effective on the road at playing a tight game, not allowing much from their opponents. The early season match at the Emirates where they held Arsenal to a scoreless draw was likely O’Neill’s goal for this match as well. Yet the Blues took a nil-nil out of play on a free-kick after a silly challenge just outside Stefan Mignolet’s area by former Villa defender Carlos Cuellar in the 3rd minute. Kolarov lined up the free kick and blasted it around the wall past Mignolet’s right post for a 5th minute 1-0 lead.
Even after City went up a goal, Sunderland looked afraid to plow on, instead willing to play a defensive tactic with two banks of four trying to hold onto a single goal deficit. The story for Manchester City was Balotelli’s inclusion, and his somewhat mixed performance. He was constantly harangued by Brett Gardner on the left side of the City attack. With Tevez, Sergio Aguero, and Edin Dzeko ahead of him as forwards, Roberto Mancini was clearly trying to find a way to utilize the maligned Italian striker.
The attack for the Blues resided mostly on the right, though. If it did come down their left side, Kolarov was the player to provide any width. Balotelli would move inside and be that second attacker down the middle when Kolarov was able to get forward. With Sunderland’s tendency to side towards defense rather than attack, this was often.