Manchester City have been quite a mystery this season. While at times their attacking play has mesmerized the opposition and spectators alike, at other times, especially on the road, they have been considerably lacklustre. With the tag of one of the most expensive teams to have ever fielded on the pitch, the expectations have been sky high for the last couple of seasons. The appointment of a far more subdued but tactically genius coach in the form of Manuel Pellegrini appears to have signalled the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle. Debojyoti Chakraborty takes you with him on a journey to explore the club under its latest manager
Manchester City’s season so far has been a story of two teams. One team plays at home, where they have won everything except one UEFA Champions League group stage match against, well, the reigning champions (and arguably the best European club team currently) Bayern Munich. But their amazing form goes for a nosedive when they travel. In the English Premier League, they have lost four times out of 6 matches – they have been beaten even by the bottom-most team in the league table, Sunderland. While they have racked up all possible 18 points from six home matches so far in the league, their tally of 4 points from six away matches is better than only 4 teams in the competition. Let us try to see what the reason behind this stark contrast is.
Last year, Manchester City suffered a lot, especially in Europe, from lack of width. They did not have any natural winger and things were worsened by Roberto Mancini’s apathy towards Samir Nasri. It seems both of these are problems of the past. Jesús Navas may not have been the most talked about coup during the summer, but he certainly has added a new dimension to City’s attacking threat down the flank with his directness. A rejuvenated Samir Nasri is a treat to watch. Deployed mostly as an inverted winger / inside left player who would cut inside at his will – a role he made his own in Arsenal – Nasri has so far the most number of assists for Manchester City in Champions League. With David Silva soon returning from injury, it will be an intricate decision for Pellegrini to slot him back in the team which looks well settled now. This is going to be interesting as Silva, along with Yaya Touré, have been the foundation based on which the success of City is built.
At home, Pellegrini is quite comfortable fielding a very attacking 4-4-2. Sergio Agüero generally plays slightly off the line and his movement into pockets is a nightmare for defenders. He is ably supported by the strong and burly Álvaro Negredo. However, the fluidity in the system and growing understanding between the striking duo has allowed Pellegrini to alter their roles with smooth transition, both between and within matches. Central midfield is shepherded by Yaya Touré with licence to venture forward at every possible opportunity. He is partnered more often than not by the box-to-box midfielder Fernandinho in preference to Javi Gracia who feels at home in a more conservative anchorman role. When defending, Negredo generally slots back to make the centre of the park more compact. This paves way for the speedy Agüero to remain the furthest forward and be the focal point of any counter-attack.
But surprisingly, even with such plethora of attacking options available, off late, Manchester City are adopting a defensive strategy while playing away from home. Their problem started with the fact that neither of their central midfielders are out-and-out blockers or anchormen. Hence teams having three in the middle can easily overrun them and expose City’s fragile backline (more on that later). To address this issue, Pellegrini haslooked to shift to a more compact 4-2-3-1 system – crowding the midfield with an additional holding midfielder in expense of a frontman. While the holding midfielder, usually Garcia, ensures that City retains possession much better and dominates the passing owing to an extra man in the midfield, it becomes easier for the opposition defenders to mark one frontman instead of two. The partnership with Negredo allows Agüero to interchange positions and drift into dangerous area inside the opponent back-line, but playing as a sole striker he has to look for attacking midfielders to join him from the deep, often providing time for defenders to regroup and cut down all the angles. This certainly makes a difference.
Manchester City have been struggling to stretch the game wide in away games. This is no coincidence that Navas has had more than 45 minutes of field time only once in away matches so far. Pellegrini has been opting for a congested middle third where the midfielders would provide through balls from central areas, keeping their shape intact. So the blueprint for defending teams has been to deny any space in the middle and force the play out wide. With City lacking in any natural width from the attacking players, this augments well for the opposition.
Let us look at the following numbers to understand their attacking problems on road.
Shots on target
City are League’s top scorer with 34 goals but their scoring rate drops alarmingly (a difference of three goals on an average) when they travel. As discussed earlier in the piece, home teams are forcing them to play wider which is vindicated by high number of crosses in away matches. But lack of a true winger is hurting them. There is clear indication that number of clear cut opportunities is far less in away matches – shots on target are 60% lower and the most striking aspect of them all, conversion rates are 50% of that in home matches. Simply put, open chances are not being created, forcing to shoot from less obvious positions and those are very seldom getting converted. At home, City enjoys far better outcomes. For instance, in the last match against Tottenham Hotspurs, City had only three attempts on target in the second half. And all of them were turned into goals – attributed to their precise positional play which led to those clear cut chances.
Defence has been an area of concern for Manchester City. With emphasis on attack, the defensive unit has been unable to cope with less number of holding midfielders supporting them. To be honest, too much tinkering has not helped either – so much so that the entire defensive unit of five (back four plus goalkeeper) had been changed after the loss against Chelsea. Pablo Zabaleta has been the only constant feature for City at the right-back position and his partnership with Navas is flourishing day by day. On the other side, it has been a toss-up between Gaël Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov – but neither of them has looked convincing while defending. The injury of Vincent Kompany has meant he has been able to start only four matches this season. His absence has been a crucial one as City have not been able to field the same centre-half pairing in two consecutive matches in his absence. Joleon Lescott has gone down the pecking order, Matija Nastasić is too young to take up the leadership role at the heart of defence, and Martin Demichelis, 33, is still finding his feet at the Sky Blues and may at best be termed as patchy, so far. The problem has been so severe that Javi Garcia had to start as a makeshift centre-back in more than one occasion. But the biggest problem has been the form of Joe Hart. Last year, he was regarded as the best shot-stopper in the League. But his free fall in form – which includes this howler against Chelsea – has forced Pellegirini to bench him in recent matches. This is not an ideal situation for England’s ‘number one’ in the backdrop of the World Cup 2014. This is far from comfortable for the club as well, where Hart, in spite of being only 26, is one of the senior players and an inspirational one at that.
Let us look at how Manchester City is faring home and away as a defensive unit through some numbers.
Well, nothing to explain really. Number of goals conceded has been far too many, only one clean sheet kept in 6 matches; blocks and clearances have gone down too – constant tinkering with the defensive personnel has cost Manchester City dearly in away matches.
To be fair to Pellegrini, it is not only his tactics which has led to a dismal result away from home. At Etihad stadium, the same team looks more charged up, more passionate, more hard-working. The entire team, right from the defence to the frontman, starts pressing the opponent at every inch. The home supporters believe that the home ground is a fortress, and rightly so. If only they can translate the same killer instinct during travel, Manchester City would be looking forward to a terrific season.
Maximus Tacticus – Manchester City
Manchester City has opened the age-old debate of “can you buy a trophy?” With the cash deposit at their disposal, the Blue side of Manchester is taking galloping strides in English Football. It is a testimony of their strength that everyone, if given a chance, would have avoided them in the Champions League group stages. Rarely a newcomer to the elite club competition of Europe has got such an admiration from its rivals. With Roberto Mancini at its helm for barely 15 months, a top 4 finish in the EPL, if not a top 2, is a certainty according to most of the pundits. It is really something – to break into the coveted Top 4 in Premier League and cement its own place. In doing so, Man City have not replaced any top teams, rather they have created a new place for themselves. Having said all these, let us have a look at how they are likely to shape up this year with all guns blazing.
Manchester City has added a plethora of options going forward. Actually they have been blamed for taking in too many players. Wayne Bridge, Shaun Wright-Philips, Emmanuel Adebayor, Craig Bellamy, Roque Santa Cruz, Steven Ireland, Jo – all of them have been bought in and then subsequently shown the door. May be it is lack of planning, vision or something else which is beyond explanation. However, surprisingly, they seem very lightweight at the back. Joe Hart is a very good shot stopper and he is getting the finer aspects right with every game he is playing. But they do not have a decent #2 as a cover. Stuart Taylor has a long history of Premiere League experiences, but none of them are worth mentioning. It is albeit strange, considering they once had Shay Given in their ranks as the second choice shot stopper. Contrasting options are available on the attacking third – many suggest their 2nd XI would be good enough to secure a top 6 finish! Without a shadow of doubt though, those players would feature regularly in most of the EPL sides.
Mancini is spoilt for choices in the attacking front. To add to that, everyone let alone the owners, want to see Man City winning the league this season. So, this is what seems like the preferred line up for Mancini.
Free Flowing Man City
This is a variation of 4-2-3-1 formation where one of the holding midfielders, Yaya Toure, will be playing further up front. Sergio “Kun” Aguero will play as a classic No. 10, dropping into holes, drawing out opposition centre backs. With Carlos Tevez unsettled, Edin Dzeko has grabbed the opportunity with both hands to cement his place as the focal point of attack and he will continue to do so. David Silva will be the main playmaker enjoying maximum freedom. Samir Nasri will add flair on the right hand side, cutting inside, laying out delightful through balls, making it quite like an inverted winger. It is not surprising, after all, he is French and hails from Arsenal aka a certain Arsene Wenger. This system has the potential to capitalize on the slightest of mistakes from the opposition. This was showcased in the Premier League game against Tottenham – they did not opt for a holding midfielder and City ran riot through their back line.
I Love Diamond
Mancini had a successful spell at Inter Milan, deploying a 4-4-2 diamond system. It seems he will try his hands with this beaten-to-death strategy this time too. It means less protection on the back four, more pressure (or, freedom as one may call it) on the full backs to supply the crosses as there are no other wide midfielders/traditional wingers. So Man City may field such a line-up in domestic cup matches or against lower-mid-table league oppositions. Kolo Toure will be used after his long layoff from the game, giving some much needed rest to Vincent Kompany or Joleon Lescott. Mancini has admitted he can rotate his wing backs at will and he will definitely do so at every given opportunity. More expressive options like Aleksandar Kolarov will be heavily involved under these circumstances. Nigel De Jong or Gareth Barry, if he is preferred, will be the only defensive screen in front of back four with James Milner joining Yaya Toure as a central midfield playmaker. Their duty will be to hold the ball, pass it into triangles and look to feed in the front runners as the pivotal point of attack. When they lose the ball, both of them can slot in beside De Jong to have a more compact midfield line in front of the back four. This formation will be very interesting if Tevez and Aguero play together up-front. Both of them like to drop in the hole or drift to the wide areas, making the formation as fluid as 4-6-0. Mario Balotelli can be used in this system also if Mancini wants to see how his team performs with one player sent off during a tight game.
Manchester City has qualified for the Champions League this time round. They will be a bit watchful as the competition demands a bit of cautious approach, especially for big away matches. Mancini, a veteran of European clashes, will be trying to be compact at the back even at the cost of missing some of the flair going forward. This is a classic 4-2-3-1 formation. Fullbacks are more expressive in this system than the flat 4-4-2. They will not only add width to the system but will also compel the opposition players to drop back, thus allowing them to play a high back line. This is something Barcelona play to perfection – attack aggressively and retrieve the ball high up the pitch if they lose possession of it. The defensive midfielders can drop back and spread a bit to create a pseudo four-man defense. They will also be forming a lot of triangles – between the centre halfs as well as the lone central midfield player. The two wide men will not be classical English wingers, but rather more contemporary inverted wingers. They will cut inside, and shoot at every opportunity (a la LM10 or CR7), leaving the crosses to be delivered by the wing backs. Having players like Silva, Nasri, Aguero, Tevez certainly helps – they are intelligent, can play on both wings and their link up play is flourishing day by day.
One problem which Mancini may face in the coming days is the lack of width. Barring Adam Johnson, Man City does not have any natural winger in their squad. Most of the midfield players like to play or drift into central positions. This will make the pitch narrow and rule out wing play to unlock defenses. Defensively also, this will pose a big threat to their two side-backs against teams who indulge in overlapping fullbacks to go with flying wingers.
Triangles all over the field
Crazy Crazy World
Mancini was ruing the fact he lacks squad depth. One may wonder what else he needs even after having a reserve bench capable of beating any top side on a given day. But I believe the maestro has something unique up his sleeves. Don’t be surprised if he fields a team as below one day:
Where are my back-up players!
Just imagine what would happen if someone in the attacking front gets injured – the poor lad does not have anyone to call up! So one can understand why the Italian desperately needs to add to his existing squad.
Man to Watch (1) – David Silva
David Silva is pivotal to Man City’s success – he will definitely be the first name, along with Joe Hart, to be picked by Mancini for any match. Silva’s first touch is excellent – receiving the ball on the move facing the opposition goal, and his short passing is a joy to behold. His technical ability makes him a regular starter for the current Spain squad which has the players of the calibre of Cesc Fabregas warming the bench. It is important to note that Silva was equally impressive with his passing in the games where Man City went rampant or where they failed to impress. The following graphics – blue lines for accurate passes and red lines for the rare miss passes – show that he had an incredible passing accuracy of 90% in both the matches.
David Silva Pulling the Strings
He is a prized asset for Manchester City – a player who can play wide as well drift inside so as to share the work load with the central playmaker. Even better, he can be similarly effective from either flank – or play in the central midfield role.
Silva started 15 times on the left flank and 14 times on the right, last season. Mancini would love to pair him with a proper overlapping full back. In the role he plays, Silva will drift inside very quickly and hence he needs the cushion of a constantly overlapping full back to stretch the opposition, and find acute angles to thread a killer ball for Aguero or Dzeko. This is why, Gael Clichy, accustomed to play a short passing game at Arsenal, would be a perfect foil for Silva down the left. Aleksander Kolarov, though is equally expressive, but his passes are more direct and hence predictable.
Man to Watch (2) – Kun Aguero
Aguero has arrived and he has announced his arrival in a big way. He has formed a deadly partnership with David Silva. They are on their way towards becoming one of the legendary partnerships up front, reminiscent of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres during their Liverpool days. Liverpool narrowly missed out on the title that season – Eastlands will hope to better that.
As is evident from the graphic, Aguero likes to drop deep and links up well with the creative midfield trio of Silva, Nasri and Toure. To add to that, he has a lethal touch in front of the goal. 8 goals from 5 matches is an ominous sign for things to come. The most important fact is that he has gelled really well into his new team. He works off the front man, can lead the line (though it is less likely that he will be asked to do so), has the trickery to bamboozle his marker and has some real venom in his shots. He is a dream number 10 and Mancini certainly could not have asked for more. Such has been his imminent impact that last season’s top goal scorer, and City’s talismanic captain, Tevez has been sidelined – though he has only himself to blame for this, but that’s a different story altogether.