City's midfield axis
Manchester City's strength lies not in their strikers, nor in the invention of David Silva and Jesus Navas, but the axis of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho. Daniel Storey examines the midfield pair.
By Daniel Storey - @danielstorey85. Last Updated: 05/04/14 4:20pm
Although Southampton certainly made things difficult for Manchester City at times during the first half of their Saturday lunchtime fixture, perhaps the result of the match should have been obvious as soon as the teams were announced, with both Yaya Toure and Fernandinho selected by Manuel Pellegrini in midfield.
Whilst such a statement may be being slightly churlish and dismissive, there is little doubt that City's record speaks for itself when Pellegrini's first-choice midfield pair are available. Over the 25 league matches in which the two have played together City have won 20, taking 62 points at 2.48 points per game. Over the course of a season that would return a total of 94 points, just one away from the Premier League record.
What's more, City have played just six league games without both Fernandinho and Toure, against Stoke (a), Sunderland (a), Crystal Palace (h), Cardiff (h), Chelsea (h) and Norwich (a), not exactly the toughest set of fixtures. In the absence of their central midfield axis, City have slipped-up to the tune of 10 points in those six matches alone - that's 43% of all their points dropped.
The most intriguing aspect of this season's title race has been the evident defect that each of the teams at the top possess, with Liverpool and Manchester City's defensive lapses and Chelsea and Arsenal's striking concerns providing the obvious Achilles' heels. For the neutral at least, the enjoyment of watching perfection eventually becomes tedious - the flaw within each title challenger has made for a thoroughly entertaining spectacle.
Picking the strongest aspect of these sides has also been a largely uncomplicated task, but whilst Chelsea have their creativity and fluidity in attacking midfield and Liverpool have the goals of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, Manchester City's strongest suit is perhaps more open to debate. The 70 goals shared between Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo and Edin Dzeko acted as the basis of City's fight on four fronts, the invention and pace of David Silva and Jesus Navas has allowed the counter attack to be a hugely dangerous weapon and the attacking intent from full-back areas has provided huge support for midfield - Aleksander Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta have over 20% of City's Premier League assists this season. However, for the real strength of Manuel Pellegrini's side one needs to look to central midfield.
Fernandinho: Manchester City paid £30million for a player who will be 29 in May
Last season, Yaya Toure's City career threatened to stall and stutter slightly as the Premier League champions gave back their crown to neighbours United in the limpest of manners conceivable (until this season, at least), with Toure struggling to stamp his customary authority on matches. The Ivorian scored just seven goals and registered seven assists in 32 matches, and in some quarters questions were asked as to whether this was a temporary blip or a more long-term regression.
Such thoughts have since been utterly eradicated, and a resurgent Toure has responded emphatically. This is City's top league goalscorer, 18 goals in 30 games supplemented by five assists. The midfielder had never previously scored more than eight goals in a league season, but has more than doubled that personal record, and his performances have been the driving force behind City's title bid.
However, whilst Toure obviously deserves credit it is the presence of his midfield partner that has allowed the Ivorian to flourish once again. Fernandinho may have cost City £30million (and there were eyebrows raised at such a fee for a player who will turn 29 in May), but his contributions have been crucial in allowing Toure to flourish once again. Whilst last season Roberto Mancini was forced to rely on Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell and Gareth Barry in the role, Pellegrini has been able to call on one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe.
Fernandinho's presence allows Toure to make attacking his primary focus, rather than consistently having to bear in mind his defensive duties. As the graphic below demonstrates, during the 0-0 draw at Carrow Road in February (in which James Milner replaced Fernandinho in midfield) Toure was forced to curb some of his attacking adventure, touching the ball 47 times in his own half, only 43% of his touches in the match coming in opposition territory. The effect on City's attacking threat was clear - they mustered just nine shots off target and two on target.
Yaya Toure's touches of the ball away at Norwich (left) and Manchester United (right)
Comparing this to the recent Manchester derby at Old Trafford (in which Fernandinho and Toure both played 90 minutes against a better quality opposition) highlights the difference. Here Toure was able to have 51 of his 71 touches in the United half, 71%. That's an incredible increase from one match to the other. Put simply, Fernandinho acts as Toure's cover, allowing him to roam at will and demonstrate his now famous energising drives forward from midfield.
Against Southampton, Toure was expected to operate in a slightly different role by his manager. Given the visitors' obvious counter-attacking threat, Pellegrini chose to use Dzeko as the lone forward with Silva, Navas and Samir Nasri providing support. Toure instead sat alongside Fernandinho during the first half, only pushing forward with more freedom once the game was won. Toure made just 22 passes in the opposition half all match, and acted as the starter of moves through short passes forward rather than a driving force. It was clear that his manager was wary of the Ivorian being caught upfield, particularly with Kolarov's constant tendency to push forward.
Fernandinho was actually fairly anonymous before his half-time withdrawal, but the cliché remains that if you don't notice the Brazilian, Pellegrini is probably happy. The fact that Fernandinho had just 11 touches of the ball in 45 minutes highlights further Toure's discipline in rarely straying too far from his side, as shown on the graphic below, where the average position of both players was almost identical (Fernandinho's no. 25 covers Toure's no. 42 almost entirely).
Manchester City players' average first-half positions against Southampton
Fernandinho's substitution was precautionary rather than necessity, and an understandable move from Pellegrini. The Chilean screams (or should that be gently announces?) order and stability, and his team selections this season reflect that - no other Premier League team have called on fewer players than City's 23. Any chance to rest players at this crucial stage must be taken, and Toure (94%) and Fernandinho (81%) have played a higher proportion of City's league minutes than every other player apart from Pablo Zabaleta. With his side two goals up, Garcia was brought on instead.
Another victory chalked up for Manchester City and, despite Liverpool's exceptional form, these are still your title favourites. If Manuel Pellegrini does indeed win his first ever league title in Europe, he will know which two players to thank more than most. Whilst Yaya Toure may take much of the credit, it is a Brazilian in his first season in England that has given Toure the platform on which to dominate.
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