Think back to the evening of November 23rd. It was the day that Liverpool were beaten 3-1 at Crystal Palace, leaving them 12th in the Premier League standings after a run of one point from four top-flight games.
Brendan Rodgers was still stubbornly refusing to adapt the formation that had served Liverpool so well last season and continued to pick Steven Gerrard, even though through the opening 12 gameweeks of action, the skipper had contributed just two goals and a single assist having played every minute.
Gerrard’s role was the deepest central midfielder, regularly dropping between the central defenders to pick up possession, launch attacks and generally dictate the pace and tempo of Liverpool’s offensive forays.
The fact he struggled in a positional sense to protect his back four and was limited in his defensive qualities was commonly ignored because he was contributing enough in an attacking sense.
However, the opposition suddenly became wiser and none more so than Aston Villa when leaving Anfield with a 1-0 win in the earlier rungs of the campaign.
Villa scored early from a set play and then just got everyone behind the ball, while Gabby Agbonlahor stuck tight to Gerrard and prevented the icon getting any space to command the match. With Gerrard ineffective, Liverpool were short of ideas.
Jamie Carragher said this about Gerrard around this time.
After the defeat at Crystal Palace, Gerrard was finally rotated out and brought on only for a brief substitute’s cameo in a victory over Stoke.
The Reds have gone from strength to strength since, avoiding defeat in 11 matches in all competitions, which is their longest same-season unbeaten run since Rodgers’ appointment at Anfield.
Not only is Gerrard now more of a squad player than Mr Indispensable, Rodgers has also changed formation to a 3-4-1-2 that has galvanised Philippe Coutinho into a regular attacking threat and allows Lucas to showcase the attributes that should be expected of a holding midfielder.
It is this acceptance that something isn’t working, alongside the knowhow to put things right that now rests on the shoulders of Manuel Pellegrini.
The fact the Citizens haven’t scored in two matches is a concern, but the bigger problem is that teams are now working out how to limit the impact of David Silva.
Like Gerrard at Liverpool, Silva is the heartbeat of all the good things City do. His lateral movement makes him notoriously hard to pick up and if allowed space in front of the opposing back four, it more often than not leads to a goal-scoring chance being created for a teammate.
Arsenal found great success in Man City’s latest Premier League game by keeping Francis Coquelin in the same zone of the pitch as Silva, with sufficient support from midfield colleagues Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey.
The end result was that City had the lion’s share of possession without really testing David Ospina in the Gunners goal.
Talking about managers breaking from a failing norm, Arsene Wenger was hugely credited after the Etihad win for not playing so openly, as he had when Arsenal were beaten in 13 of their previous 16 away games with Chelsea, Man City and Man Utd, conceding 43 goals in the process.
Gary Neville even felt the defensive move which showed more respect to the opposition was worthy of a “hallelujah” on commentary.
These statistics are not that surprising given that Pellegrini has always rated ball retention highly, looked to control the centre of the pitch and then utilise the creativity of a playmaker in an attacking midfield role, often with the sacrifice of a lack of width to his teams.
At River Plate he had Andres D’Alessandro, Juan Roman Riquelme flourished at Villarreal after flopping at Barcelona, before Cazorla and then Isco shone in this role at Malaga.
Silva has this duty at Man City, but like when facing Arsenal, he could find himself marked out of the Citizens’ next Premier League fixture at Chelsea, where anything other than a victory would make it exceedingly difficult for them to retain their top-flight title.
Their chances are already hindered by Yaya Toure still representing Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations, while Vincent Kompany is still working up to his commanding best after a spell out injured.
Nemanja Matic will certainly protect the Chelsea defence and reduce the space that Silva tends to produce his best work in, while Jose Mourinho may opt for another midfield screener alongside the Serbian.
So what must Pellegrini do to improve the chances of not only Silva, but star striker Sergio Aguero having a necessary influence on the game?
The unlikely answer may be to drop Aguero into Silva’s regular number-10 role and move the Spaniard to the left flank.
Playing Silva off the left makes it easier for him to escape the clutches of the Chelsea midfielders, while he could still have licence to roam into any attacking position where he felt he could influence the game.
Branislav Ivanovic wouldn’t have an easy decision over whether to track Silva in-field or attempt to pass him on, while playing Aguero in the hole would give Matic a dilemma over which of the pair to pick up.
Silva would also have less defensive duty on the left in comparison to the right, where there is a greater onus on the winger to track back and help Pablo Zabaleta cope with the obvious threat of Eden Hazard. This is why James Milner is preferred to Jesus Navas.
Going against his principles, Pellegrini is best served conceding possession and getting the ball forward much quicker on the counter attack.
Man City’s goal at Stamford Bridge in 2013 is especially memorable as Chelsea were effectively carved apart in three passes, meaning that their defenders were caught higher up the pitch than they wanted to be.
Aguero is deadly playing on the shoulder, but Chelsea will surely defend deep against him to limit runs in behind and also set up to stop Silva supplying the passes to him.
With the Argentine starting deeper and Edin Dzeko up top, Chelsea may be drawn into defending slightly higher and Aguero can make more telling runs where tracking him is much harder.
The only weakness will be his defensive discipline as City will not be able to allow Dzeko, Aguero and Silva to not shut down opponents, shun pressing or avoid getting out of the team shape.
Chelsea have won 10 Premier League home matches in succession and another here would almost guarantee them the title.
A draw isn’t really good enough for Man City either and it is 5/2 they triumph at Stamford Bridge with bwin. If Pellegrini sticks to his ball-retention principles, expect the title race to be over in January.