Blackburn Rovers 0-1 Manchester City – Match Report
5. Givet (Diouf 85)
28. P Jones
2. J Jones
8. Dunn (Rochina 63)
21. Mwaruwari (Kalinic 71)
41. M. B. Diouf
11. Johnson (Dzeko 72)
21. Silva (Boyata 90)
34. De Jong
42. Y Toure
45. Balotelli (Vieira 83)
A meeting between two sides both scrapping for points at opposite ends of the table produced an imbalanced and yet occasionally entertaining game at Ewood Park. Blackburn played a rigid 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 cross, with two hard workers in Benjani Mwaruwari and Jason Roberts up front. The away side lined up in their customary 4-2-3-1, though without the influence of injured captain Carlos Tevez.
City started the half off well, knocking the ball around neatly. It was immediately obvious that the home side, so hard to beat at Ewood Park under their former manager Sam Allardyce, were looking to keep their shape and hit City on the break. That said, early on City were rampant; good work down the right by Pablo Zabaleta resulted in a cross falling to David Silva, who smacked an ambitious volley against the post. City’s wingers were immediately involved, with Silva drifting inside and Adam Johnson using his pace and trickery to beat Gael Givet. A defining feature of Blackburn’s defensive play seemed to be to rattle their opponents, and Mario Balotelli in particular was clattered first by Chris Samba and then by David Dunn. Blackburn’s defending was clever, sitting deep before pouncing on the edge of their penalty area. They still looked to threaten on the counter in the rare occasions they had the ball, with Benjani breaking well on more than one occasion. Blackburn’s defending was helped by the intelligence and work rate of their wingers. Both Olsson and Emerton are comfortable in defence, and tracked the City full-backs well. However, thanks to Yaya Toure’s good movement to the wings, they were often still outnumbered, and both Kolarov and in particular Zabaleta made good runs to increase the width. City’s final ball continued to be poor, either with not enough bodies in the box or without the accuracy to find them. Despite their awful possession statistics, Blackburn continued to threaten through set-pieces, with a throw-in resulting in Roberts being felled in the box for what should have been a penalty. Phil Jones was impressive both at the back and going forward, with one particularly memorable run seeing him sprint the length of the pitch before laying off for Benjani to lose the ball.
City’s defending was also impressive. Nigel De Jong in particular was patrolling the midfield well, with Barry taking the role he’s best at, a defensive-minded box-to-box brief. Martin Olsson, Blackburn’s dangerman, looked to try and use his pace and trickery at every opportunity, but a combination of De Jong’s diligent tracking and Zabaleta’s energy managed to contain him. Phil Jones, however, continued to make exceptional forward runs, with an interchange between he and Olsson won a corner on the left on 35 minutes. Jones’ job was made easier both by City’s one striker system and also by Balotelli’s sheer laziness. As half-time approached, Blackburn began to grow into the game, both by the regular method of set-pieces and through charging runs from deep. The away side looked ineffective against Blackburn’s excellent centre-backs, and both Toure and the City wingers were being tracked extremely well. Blackburn continued to defend intelligently, and in moments of high pressure the defence was allowed to strictly man-mark, whilst the second bank of four sat on the edge of the area and looked to cut off through balls. The difference in work rate between the two side’s front men was stark; with Silva, Johnson and in particular Mario Balotelli not keen on defending, Benjani and Roberts’ constant harrying caused problems for De Jong’s normally calm distribution.
As the second half started, Blackburn’s renaissance continued. Roberts hit the side netting after a flick on from Benjani as Blackburn’s defence pushed higher, encouraged by the lack of City penetration. Their endeavour began to pay off, as a rattled City defence started conceding fouls, a dangerous strategy against a team as powerful as Blackburn. Olsson continued to impress against a suddenly hamstrung City right, as De Jong was loath to cover and leave the centre open against a rejuvenated Blackburn, especially when considering he was on a yellow card. Suddenly, however, when Blackburn were enjoying their best moment of the game, a slick passing move sent Silva free down the left, and his low deflected cross found its way to Dzeko who lashed in at the near post.
A disheartened Blackburn continued to press as City sat back and played on the counter. As Patrick Vieira was brought on to shore up the City midfield, Blackburn again resorted to long, high balls, often direct from Paul Robinson. As the game got more stretched and frantic, City enjoyed their most penetrative spell of the match, though Blackburn’s threat was still tangible. Though still battling, Blackburn were outmatched and City closed the game out well.
Analysis: City’s first-half domination
In the end, this game was about quality, and for all of Blackburn’s effort and work-rate they were simply outclassed by Manchester City. In the first half this was particularly evident; one particularly astonishing stat (courtesy of WhoScored, as always) was that in the first ten minutes, Manchester City had 92% possession. In the same period, Blackburn only completed nine passes. This only increased to 93% on 20 minutes. Even when taking into account Blackburn’s resurgance at the end of the half, the possession statistics after 45 minutes still read 78% in favour of City. City’s utter dominance was the product of a mixture of things; Blackburn’s deep defensive line didn’t lend itself to winning the ball back quickly, and this was mirrored in their style, in which they looked to soak up pressure before breaking. City’s technical prowess was also a contributing factor, with the passing of their front six impressive. Everyone had their role, from De Jong’s (55 attempted, 51 completed) methodical short distribution to Barry’s (50 attempted, 40 completed) link play, and everyone understood it impeccably. One common accusation against Roberto Mancini’s men is that they don’t play as a team or haven’t gelled properly. This would seem to indicate the opposite. City’s pressing was also impressive, lead by the superb De Jong and helped by Toure’s defensive intelligence, which only aided their brilliant first half display. When Blackburn became more proactive towards the end of the first and beginning of the second half, pressing higher and faster, City’s flow was disrupted and they seemed unable to deal with this new and different threat. The play broke up and became scrappy, favouring Blackburn’s physical and powerful approach.
Analysis: Blackburn’s brilliant centre-backs
Christopher Samba is widely acknowledged as one of the Premiership’s finest defenders, and Phil Jones as one of the brightest young English talents available. Both are versatile – Samba having played as a striker under Allardyce occasionally, and Jones as a holding midfielder – and both complement each other well. Jones, the smaller, quicker defender, covers behind Samba with his pace, whereas the bigger Congolese is indomitable in the air and powerful in the tackle. Both, however, also offer far more than just defending. Jones, with his technical ability and stamina, made many lung-bursting runs down the centre of the pitch, setting up his teammates and stretching the opposition defence. With the general trend towards one striker formations, particularly at the top echelons of football, the only players ‘spare’ left on the pitch are the centre-backs, and Jones took advantage of this (aided by Balotelli’s horrendous work-rate) extremely well.
Samba, on the other hand, is a much more classical defender, but was equally useful in attack. Whilst Jones moved upfield well with the ball at his feet, Samba moved forward only to contest set-pieces, at which he is truly superb. On one occasion, the two defenders combined perfectly; Jones ran the length of the pitch and won a corner, which Samba then headed just wide. It is thanks to these top-quality centre-backs, the vestiges of Allardyce’s reign, that Blackburn remain hopeful of beating the drop this season.