With Pablo Zabaleta unavailable for Manchester City’s afternoon kickoff at Craven Cottage against Fulham, manager Manuel Pellegrini had a selection choice to make at right-back. Sixty minutes into the match, with the Blues holding a tenuous 2-1 lead, it was obvious Pellegrini had made the wrong choice.
Gaël Clichy, normally a left-back, was shifted to the right for this match but seemed well out of his depth, being routinely beat by Kieran Richardson and Adel Taarabt (when he pushed wide and deep at times from his “false 9” position). On multiple occasions either holding midfiedler Fernandinho had to cover for Clichy’s errors or the recalled goalkeeper Joe Hart had to spectacularly deny Fulham opportunities.
Sensing the side was being overrun, Pellegrini made two changes, bringing on Jesus Navas who forced Richardson back on his heels defensively, and then James Milner whose work rate allowed him to help defensively while getting forward. After Fulham equalized, Navas and Milner both scored goals to give the Blues a 4-2 victory, and three critical away points heading into a top of the table boxing day clash against Liverpool.
Following Milner’s goal that made the scoreline 4-2, Pellegrini pragmatically pulled man of the match David Silva in favor of Javier Garcia to provide additional central midfield cover for the defense. This was the type of move that Pellegrini often avoided making earlier in the season when ahead away from home.
The tactical changes also showed that the Blues could excel in a 4-2-3-1 formation that has become the defacto formation for so many top European sides. Pellegrini has resisted playing this way, but today with his side’s back against the wall and seemingly destined to drop points once again away from home, he rationally changed shape.
Often times away from home this season, Pellegrini’s second half changes have been more mystifying then effective. But Saturday he saw the trouble the Blues were in quickly, made two important personnel changes to stop the bleeding and modify tactics, and it worked brilliantly.
A word about Fulham. Under Rene Meulensteen, they look a much more energetic, enthusiastic and quality side then they did under Martin Jol. The individual talent of the Cottagers top players has never been in question. Relative to the sides around them in the table, they have a remarkable amount of pedigree. However, Jol failed to get the sort of performances for this side who were seemingly disinterested for much of the campaign.