Manchester City are the favourites to win their UEFA Champions League R-16 clash against Dynamo Kyiv. They topped Group D by beating Borussia Monchengladbach at home on Matchday 6 while Sevilla beat Juventus to not only seal their place in the R-32 of the UEFA Europa League, but also deny Massimiliano Allegri’s side top spot in the group. As the winners of their group, City did manage to avoid the European powerhouses and draw a challenging but beatable Kyiv, who finished second in their group comprising of Chelsea, FC Porto and Maccabi Tel-Aviv.
City’s form has plummeted, inexplicably, in the last fortnight and they do not look like the side from the first half of their 2015/16 campaign. They have lost all three games played in February and are a side very low on confidence. It is the manner of City’s defeats that should be of utmost concern to everyone associated with the club. They have shipped 10 goals in the defeats to Leicester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea this month, and their attackers have not managed to breach the opposition goalkeepers more than once in each of the aforementioned games.
That’s what brings us to this question: who among David Silva and Yaya Toure, should be City’s No. 10 against Kyiv in the first leg tomorrow night? It is a massive selection call Manuel Pellegrini has to make, with City lacking the spark and failing to carry a menace to the opposition’s goal in any of the games played so far during this month.
At the outset, this article is written with the presumption that Pellegrini will not deploy his side in the 4-3-3 system, but in the 4-2-3-1 system against Kyiv tomorrow night. City played some astounding, eye-catching football when their manager deployed them in the 4-3-3 system against Sevilla at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium in November 2015. It is probably City’s best performance in the Champions League till date. Silva and Aguero did not feature that night, with Toure being played as a No. 6 and Fernando Reges providing cover to the City backline.
Now, there is no particular reason why Pellegrini cannot play 4-3-3 against Kyiv tomorrow. But my belief is that he will stick to playing 4-2-3-1, as he has done for most of this season. Ever since the 1-3 victory against Unai Emery’s side, Pellegrini has not only set his side up in the 4-2-3-1 system in all the games, but also deployed Toure at No. 10 in some of the most crucial fixtures. The Ivorian played there against the Foxes and Spurs in City’s last two league matches, and he could not affect the game as his manager would have wanted him to.
The fundamental reason to Toure being deployed at No. 10 is his poor work rate coupled with apparent unwillingness to track back and help his teammates when City are not in possession. And that seems to be the only reason for Pellegrini to play Toure behind the striker. Yes, Toure has got all the attributes for a player who plays behind the team’s No. 9, or No. 10 in City’s case, but he has not harnessed them this season. Playing at No. 10, Toure just has one assist to his name, and that came way back in September, during City’s 4-1 defeat to Mauricio Pochettino’s side at White Hart Lane.
One of Toure’s strengths is his ability to pick the ball up deep in his own half, and make lung-bursting runs through the middle. It frees up space for his teammates and puts the opposition on the back-foot. City also miss his wide range of passing and a genuine presence in the middle of the park when Toure is played behind the striker. At No. 10, Toure gets to play near the opposition box and his only responsibilities are to play defence-splitting passes and set up goals for his team’s attackers. But sadly for City, they have not had Toure playing as you normally expect him to, at No. 10, despite having the attributes of a typical playmaker.
So, even for tomorrow night’s game against Kyiv, if I was Pellegrini, I would not play Toure behind the striker and consequently, lose whatever I can get out of him when played in his customary position.
Coming to Silva, again, I think Pellegrini has played the Spaniard out wide on the right just to accommodate Toure where Silva normally operates from. It was one of the obnoxious aspects of City’s home clash against Spurs nine days ago. Silva played on the right and provided cover for Pablo Zabaleta. How uncharacteristic? It restricted him hugely from playing his natural game and keeping the visitors on their toes. When City were in possession, he did drift into central areas and tried to weave his magic. But he simply could not have the kind of threat he is capable of.
Yes, Silva has played in wide areas before, most notably during Pellegrini’s first season at the Etihad Stadium. City played in a 4-2-2-2 formation, which had Silva and Samir Nasri occupying the ‘half-spaces’ and playing behind Aguero and Alvaro Negredo, who were such a lethal strike partnership for the 2013/14 English champions. But Pellegrini, this season, has coerced himself into playing Silva out wide, so as to play Toure in a free role.
Tomorrow night, I think Silva has got to play in the hole for City. He enjoyed a decent game against Spurs and showed signs of returning to form, which has deserted him for far too long. He is the creator-in-chief as far as City are concerned and Pellegrini ideally shouldn’t tinker with it. He has experimented a lot with his choice of No. 10s this season. Tomorrow, however, he should just play his main players in their designated positions. City have lost three games in a row for the first time in six years, and they cannot risk going four fixtures without a victory. Not playing Silva at No. 10 could well boomerang again as it has already this season.
Pellegrini’s City need to get back to the drawing board and start all over again. In recent times, we have seldom seen them be so docile and ineffective as they have been for the whole of this month. They need to go for the win against Kyiv tomorrow night, even though it is just the first leg of the tie and nothing will be decided regardless of the result. Playing Silva, and not Toure, at No. 10 would be one way to try to get back to winning ways.