City need Zabaleta right-back in the frame
Manchester City looked a little... stunted in their opening day game with Newcastle on Sunday. To be honest, it's probably a natural reaction to having so many players late back from the World Cup. With a high number of the first team involved with the latter stages of the competition in Brazil, it's little surprise that they've not all had the fullest of preseasons -- and, frankly, the important thing for Manuel Pellegrini was picking up the three points.
Especially with the fixtures to come; boy has the computer has not been kind with the first few home games.
The Blues deserved their win, though they worked harder for it than they might have been expecting given the recent history of success they've had against Newcastle. While there was a man of the match display from Edin Dzeko, City actually found it difficult to carve out clear cut chances, but proved to be clinical when they did create something of note.
It's easy to point to the World Cup as an excuse as to why the team was a little rusty, but one of the biggest reasons the champions found it a little difficult to get into their groove (certainly in an attacking sense) was because of one position: right-back. Step forward Gael Clichy.
It's not a problem the Blues will have all through the season; the Frenchman is simply a short-term solution to a short-term problem -- that neither Pablo Zabaleta nor Bacary Sagna are ready for first-team action. And, in terms of a defensive display, Clichy was pretty solid for a man who was essentially playing the game back to front.
I'm not totally against wrong-footed full-backs. It's worked perfectly fine at other clubs. Indeed, Zabaleta himself proved to be a better option at left-back than both Wayne Bridge and Aleksandar Kolarov towards the end of the 2010-11 FA Cup-winning season. The latter of those he was keeping out of the team has since improved markedly, but his debut campaign at the Etihad left a lot to be desired in the minds of many.
However, since Zabaleta established himself as the first-choice right-back in 2012-13, City really miss him when he's not there. Others are able to defend as well as he does, but it is when City are in possession of the ball that his influence is missed. His driving runs forward push the opposing left-sided midfielder back and his support of James Milner or Jesus Navas or Samir Nasri is extemporary.
More often than not, he won't get the ball -- but he makes the run anyway. He's not always there to be an option, but to create space on the overlap. He even produces underlapping drives to the by-line, which can confuse the opponents even further.
Last season, there was always the fear that the Argentine would pick up an injury that would keep him out of the team. The alternatives weren't appealing: Micah Richards had lost so much ground through injury, while Dedryck Boyata just didn't look comfortable when expected to deputise. Even the versatile Milner wasn't able to do it.
Knowing that Zabaleta would be back late from the World Cup, Pellegrini has been deploying Clichy at right-back throughout preseason in an attempt to get him as comfortable as possible with the position. Defensively, it was fine -- he played a big part in the Blues keeping a clean sheet in the north east on Sunday.
However, offensively, he just couldn't do it. He's very left footed and that meant he was desperate not to provide width on the right. The few times he did begin to lead a breakaway down the flank, his need to cut back on himself to get it onto his good side gave the Newcastle defence time to get back in and set up. When he tried to cross with his right foot, Tim Krul was able to gobble the ball up.
By the second half, the Frenchman didn't bother getting forward, choosing to hold his position. It was the sensible choice to protect what at the time was a delicate 1-0 lead the visitors held, but it meant it was much harder for them to pressure for a second. That eventually came with a decisive breakaway from Sergio Aguero.
The champions' rustiness will be ironed out over the course of the next few weeks and one of the biggest influences in that will be Zabaleta and Sagna both being available for selection. With Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea to come before the end of September, City fans will be hoping that's sooner rather than later.
David Mooney is a writer and a radio journalist based in Manchester. He is also news editor on 104.9 Imagine FM. Twitter: @DavidMooney