A Tale of Second Half Subs At The Etihad Stadium

24 March 2012

Wednesday evening saw Manchester City come from behind to beat Chelsea 2-1 and stay firmly on the heels of Manchester United in the title race. The return of Carlos Tevez has dominated most of the headlines with his six-month absence coming to an end with a substitute appearance in a game with such a dramatic turnaround. And whilst Tevez was influential in the making of City’s winning goal, the decisive factors in the game swinging in City’s favour were the 4 second half substitutions made by Roberto Di Matteo and Roberto Mancini.

After an evenly contested first half ended goalless, Mancini withdrew the ineffective Balotelli at half time and sent on Gareth Barry to release Yaya Toure to play in a more advanced role closer to Sergio Aguero. This followed a 20th minute forced Chelsea substitution when Branislav Ivanovic came off injured and was replaced by Jose Bosingwa in a straight swap. These two substitutions had little, if any, impact on the game and how it was developing. The first move that would later have significance was Roberto Di Matteo’s substitution of Raul Meireles for Michael Essien in the 58th minute. Without being spectacular, Meireles was doing a job for the team and his fitness is an advantage that allows him to quickly close the opposition down and break forward to join in with counter attacks. Essien on the other hand appears to have lost a yard of pace since his injury problems and doesn’t look as mobile and sharp across the pitch as he once did.

Despite this, Chelsea did take the lead two minutes later in slightly fortunate circumstances. A double deflection followed Gary Cahill’s strike after City failed to clear a corner and Joe Hart was helpess to stop it finding the back of the net.

City Changes

Mancini didn’t wait long after going behind before calling for attacking reinforcements. The moment previously built up in the media arrived on 66 minutes as Tevez was sent on for defensive midfielder Nigel de Jong. Ten minutes later Mancini substituted David Silva as he was replaced by Edin Dzeko. These two changes meant City now had a physical focal point in the centre of their attack, with Dzeko occupying another Chelsea centre-back where they previously only had one player to mark at times. This allowed the likes of Nasri, Aguero, Tevez and Yaya Toure to get forward and make runs forward into spaces rather than into areas where spare Chelsea defenders were waiting to pick them up. Tevez, whilst understandably not looking as sharp as he has in the previous couple of seasons, was dropping into areas between the Chelsea defence and midfield and turning to run towards goal with his trademark direct style. This saw Chelsea almost constantly on the back foot, especially when combined with Chelsea’s final change of the match, sending on Drogba for Torres in between the two second half City changes.

Inviting Pressure

Torres’ pace, willingness to run the channels and ability to run with the ball was often used as an outlet for Chelsea to relieve pressure. He helped stop the ball from coming straight back at them and even when Chelsea didn’t have the ball, was working tirelessly to close people down. Drogba, as with several senior Chelsea players, isn’t as quick as he once was, and doesn’t run the channels and get across the forward line as much as he used to. He seems to be more of a static target who will hold the ball up rather than run with it. He also doesn’t have the legs to be constantly chasing players and closing down whilst playing the lone striker role. Drogba’s inferior work rate when not in possession, and Essien causing Chelsea’s midfield to sit off City’s and invite pressure,  left City as much time as they needed to have the ball at the back and pick the right pass to go forward.

Essien and Drogba had absolutely no positive impact on the game, and both contributed to the team inviting pressure and allowing City to push the whole team 10 yards further up the pitch. They were substitutions that didn’t really need making as Chelsea’s hard-working, counter-attacking game plan was clearly working and frustrating City. Of course, Essien then gave away the penalty that allowed Sergio Aguero to fire in an equaliser from 12 yards on 78 minutes.

As Dzeko, Tevez and Aguero occupied three of the Chelsea back four, Nasri was able to join them from deep and this is how a fantastically worked winning goal came about on 85 minutes. Frenchman Nasri, arguably having his best game since his summer transfer from Arsenal, played the ball into the feet of Tevez and followed his pass forward. Tevez neatly turned and impressively found Nasri with a short reverse ball showing great awareness and weight of pass. Nasri still had a lot to do but showed great control and composure to carry it closer to the Chelsea goal and dink it over Petr Cech and into the net as the City faithful went wild.

So whilst the Tevez story will undoubtedly continue to dominate the news pages, this was a night when Mancini deserved credit as he perhaps showed his superior managerial experience over a fellow Italian in his first big job in football.

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