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Learning experience

A tight win over Palace taught Manuel Pellegrini to avoid complacency, writes Peter Fraser.

Last Updated: 28/12/13 at 18:38

Pellegrini may have taken a lesson up against Premier League veteran Pulis

Pellegrini may have taken a lesson up against Premier League veteran Pulis

Manuel Pellegrini had used his pre-match interview with Sky Sports to moan about the fact Manchester City were having to play Crystal Palace less than 48 hours after Boxing Day's victory over Liverpool.

It is well-known the British domestic fixture list over Christmas and New Year is a demanding schedule, especially in comparison with the winter breaks which take place around the rest of Europe's major leagues. But it is also a reality and one of those brilliant idiosyncrasies of the competition.

Former Villarreal, Real Madrid and Malaga boss Pellegrini is far from the first boss, British or foreign, to complain about the congestion of the Premier League's fixtures and he is also unlikely to be the last.

Another almost unique characteristic of the Premier League means no team, no matter what their position in the table or the supposed superiority of the opposition, will give up on a challenge or consider themselves underdogs without a hope. That Palace occupied that role on Saturday was to the immense credit of Tony Pulis' visitors at the Etihad Stadium.

Having named a much-changed team supposedly to rest his star names against a relegation-threatened Palace side, who had seemingly been deemed as insignificantly inferior, Chilean Pellegrini will now be fully aware of both of these wonderful features of England's top flight.

It took an edgy performance and Edin Dzeko's second-half goal for City to secure the points. Yes, City moved top of the table as a result and, yes, they maintained their 100 per cent home record while also becoming the first Premier League team to score 54 goals after 19 games. But the scrappy, unconvincing nature of the victory was also a valuable lesson for Pellegrini that complacency is not a luxury.

Selection

Manchester City v Crystal Palace starting line-ups

Pellegrini made six changes to his 4-2-3-1 starting line-up, with Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and Alvaro Negredo among those on the bench. That meant Dzeko led City's attack. Dedryck Boyata started his first Premier League game for the club since May 2011 at right-back while centre-back Matija Nastasic returned for the first time since sustaining a calf injury at the end of November.

Tellingly in comparison, despite having only an hour or two's extra rest than City, Premier League veteran Pulis named an unchanged Palace line-up to that which had beaten Aston Villa on Boxing Day. Julian Speroni was the goalkeeper tasked with trying to stop free-scoring City behind the centre-back pairing of Danny Gabbidon and Adrian Mariappa. Cameron Jerome started as the lone striker but had to come off due to an injury in the 35th minute to be replaced by Marouane Chamakh. Palace were in a formation which morphed into 4-1-4-1, with captain Mile Jedinak dropping even further behind an already deep midfield four. Yannick Bolasie, who was excellent on the right of midfield against Villa, was moved to the left in targeting Boyata.

Palace Organisation

It was clear to see why Palace started the game having kept five clean sheets in their last eight Premier League matches. Pulis has them extremely well organised and they maintained their defensively-focused shape superbly to frustrate City.

Indeed, City had a huge 72.2% possession in the first half and attempted 18 shots but, such was Palace's discipline, the visitors blocked 10 of those efforts while six others were off target to ensure Speroni only had two saves to make before the interval - one long-range Vincent Kompany drive and tipping a Fernandinho header over the crossbar in time added on.

First and second half: Palace moved Bolasie (7) to the left before becoming more compact after half-time

With Pulis able to have a word at half-time to further organise his players, Palace only improved after the break as they sat even deeper, became more compact and increased their efficiency on the counter-attack. City were allowed to have just five shots in the second half, with only two of these being on target - including Dzeko's 66th minute goal. The lively Jesus Navas assisted the goal and was one of City's better players on the afternoon.

Palace saw even less of the ball in that second half, surrendering 80% possession to City. But they remained superbly focused on their task and did not abandon their shape even when they had fallen behind. If Pulis can continue to get his players to show such faith in his principles, they will avoid relegation.

Combination Play

Regardless of what Pellegrini may have suggested in his post-match interview, Palace did not restrict themselves to only defending and did counter-attack when possible, with Barry Bannan clearly designated with feeding the ball wide to the left to Bolasie at every chance in order for the wideman to run at Boyata.

This was demonstrated in the manner in which Bolasie had 13 touches of the ball, more than any other Palace player, in the opening 20 minutes. Bannan had passed the ball to Bolasie 10 times, Palace's most frequent pass combination, before the latter went off in the 76th minute.

Bannan played 10 passes to Bolasie (left), who was effective in passes (yellow), dribbles (red) & shots (blue)

Such was Palace's increased adventure in the second half, when they racked up three shots on target which had City goalkeeper Joe Hart at his best to prevent them finding the back of the net, they ended the game with the same number of four shots on target as their hosts.

That Hart, who sustained a nasty cut under his left eye in the collision with Jerome which caused the Palace striker's injury, was announced as City's club man of the match at the Etihad said everything.

Boyata Gamble

The decision to rest right-back Pablo Zabaleta and select Boyata in his place did not work for Pellegrini. Boyata is more comfortable at centre-back and it showed as he struggled throughout the first half. Not only was he exposed at times by Bolasie but he also offered nothing like the attacking threat going forward of Zabaleta.

Boyata (left) did not push as high or as wide as Zabaleta (right) had done against Liverpool

Boyata was eventually taken off in just the 55th minute, when Pellegrini made a double change as he also removed Fernandinho for replacements Samir Nasri and Alvaro Negredo. When Boyata went off, he had created two goalscoring chances but had touched the ball only 56 times, had won only one of his four duels and had not ventured as high and wide up the pitch as Zabaleta had done against Liverpool.

Pellegrini's choice to remove Fernandinho was confusing given the Brazilian had been City's best player in the first half and had gone close to a goal on several occasions while also playing a superb through ball to David Silva in the 29th minute.

Fernandinho, who is improving his chances of going to the World Cup every week having previously missed out on Brazil's ventures at major tournaments, had touched the ball 63 times, had four shots, made two chances and played 50 passes when he was substituted.

Pellegrini's view

"We didn't have our team fresh and it is very difficult when just one team want to play and the other just wants to defend so that was the game we saw today. That is not what we are used to doing at the Etihad. We also had a lot of chances to score but I repeat it is very difficult to attack when the other team is with ten players in their own box. Maybe on some counter attacks and corners they had chances."

Pulis' view

"I am pleased [with the performance], we have had two away games and we went to Aston Villa, who were desperate for the points, and then follow it up and come to Manchester City, and put in a performance like that, I cannot criticise the players."

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