Martin Demichelis is not a very good central defender. He had some nice years with Bayern Munich and Argentina, but has been mostly poor for the last six years or so. He has been strangely serviceable during his time at Manchester City, but while he has cut out the mental errors that made him the butt of jokes in recent years, he is still slow and average on the ball.
Strangely, despite having James Milner and Jack Rodwell available, Manuel Pellegrini opted to start Demichelis in the center of midfield Monday in place of the absent Fernandinho. The theory was easy to pick up: Demichelis is a center back and a large person, so he's a more defensive midfielder than alternative options. Chelsea have good attacking midfielders and like to counter attack through the center. Pellegrini wanted to counter that with a very defensive midfielder. Simple, right?
This theory fell apart when it became apparent that Demichelis is an average center back who is not that great at most aspects of football.
The Argentine can muscle people off the ball and is a solid technical tackler, but he's not great at picking a pass or turning and running. His creativity is minimal and his touch is merely adequate for a central midfielder. He picked up an early yellow card and had to play conservatively after that, which hindered him considerably because he is slow and hasn't played midfield in a very long time. Chelsea only scored one goal, but they had numerous dangerous counters through the center and probably would have scored more if Samuel Eto'o and Ramires had been a bit better in the final third.
Meanwhile, City couldn't create much of anything. Chelsea played a defensive game with two big and athletic defensive midfielders -- Nemanja Matic and David Luiz -- shielding their defense, but it wasn't outrageously negative. Playing defensively at Etihad Stadium isn't negative at all, really, it's just intelligent. It's generally smart to keep a couple guys back away to a team that scores as many goals as City, especially if that team has a perfect home record. Chelsea kept six men behind the ball at all times and attacked with four, with one of Luiz or Matic occasionally joining the attack and the fullbacks providing plenty of attacking support -- Branislav Ivanovic scored the winner from open play, after all. There was no bus-parking involved for Chelsea, just a gameplan with a clear defensive focus.
Chelsea might have started the way they did regardless of City's personnel, but they were able to stick with it and get away with it because Fernandinho -- and to a lesser extent, Sergio Aguero -- wasn't playing.
While 4-4-2 formations are most commonly associated with tactical neanderthals and/or playing a very conservative game, City's is something entirely different. It's very attacking and, unlike most variations of 4-4-2, it doesn't feature regular-footed wingers getting to the byline and lofting a cross to a big dude on a constant basis. Jesus Navas has a bit of that in his game, but he's always a threat to cut inside too. David Silva is less of a winger than he is an advanced playmaker whose starting position is on the left. One of the strikers is asked to drop deep to pick up the ball and open up space for the other striker. But more importantly than all of that, for this tactic work as well as possible, the central midfielders have to be do-everything monsters.
As good as the likes of Silva, Aguero and Alvaro Negredo are, City are awesome mostly because of Yaya Toure and Fernandinho. Neither is a pure defensive midfielder, but they're competent enough defensive players that they can make up for any deficiencies with their athleticism. Because neither is a true deep-lying playmaker or defensive midfielder and they're regularly outnumbered against three-man midfields, they're both asked to do the jobs of (at least) one-and-a-half men.
It works because they're aliens, but if one goes down, City are put into a situation where the other has to do a lot, especially if the one that goes down is replaced by Demichelis. It also doesn't help that Aguero wasn't replaced by Stevan Jovetic or Samir Nasri, but by a pure center forward. This put Toure in a position where he was asked to do his own job, plus parts of Fernandinho's, while Demichelis did the job of ... a guy who stands in a place?
Jose Mourinho's initial gameplan was intelligent, but it wasn't rocket science. He was probably thrilled that Pellegrini never forced him into making any significant alterations. City's manager didn't have any terrific options to cover up for the losses of Aguero and Fernandinho, but the ones he chose couldn't have been much worse. City finished the game with just two shots on target.
Manchester City might have the best starting XI on the planet, but their dreams of winning trophies come undone when their manager does mind-numbingly stupid things like playing Demichelis in midfield. It was a selection that looked like a disaster before anyone stepped on the pitch and, everyone in the world who is not Pellegrini and is aware of Demichelis' existence was proven correct by his performance. Which, by the way, was totally not Demichelis' fault, much in the way it wouldn't be a musician's fault if you gave him a paintbrush and got pissed when he didn't reproduce a Monet.
If City go on to win the title, this error by Pellegrini will be forgiven, but certainly not forgotten. In fact, it should be engraved on the trophy.
2013-14 Premier League Champions: Manchester City, even though Pellegrini totally tried to hand Chelsea or Arsenal the title by playing Martin Demichelis in midfield.