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: Chelsea
It is homecoming for the Special One. He might have become the Happy One but José Mourinho’s tongue-in-cheek attitude has not deserted him. Back in Chelsea with a much younger squad, Mourinho has started to put his stamp on the team. These might be early days, but signs are promising and silverware does not look to be a very far-fetched target. Debojyoti Chakraborty dissects Chelsea under José Mourinho – (happily) re-loaded
Chelsea, under José Mourinho, created history as they won the domestic league after more than half a century. But Mourinho departed after failing to win the continental glory for Roman Abramovich. He returns after six years at Stamford Bridge to complete some unfinished business. Is his squad good enough? Has he evolved enough in these years to rectify his earlier mistakes? Let us have a look.
Last season, Chelsea looked awesome going forward with their array of attacking midfielders. Even with a misfiring front man Fernando Torres, Chelsea were able to create havoc with their three attacking midfielders – Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar. But they looked quite vulnerable in the back. This was largely due to the indecisiveness in the centre-back pairing. John Terry looked clueless at times, Gary Cahill simply not able to handle the pressure of playing in a club like Chelsea where every minute mistake is magnified, and with David Luiz – you are just a whisker away from disaster. Nothing much has changed this season, except the captain looking more assured of him. Petr Čech is not the same goalkeeper following his head injury – especially his outing remains questionable – but is still one of the better shot-stoppers in business. Two side-backs have been exceptional – Branislav Ivanović has played in all the games for Chelsea this season while Ashley Cole seems to run the clock behind with every performance. Their effectiveness is not a mere coincidence; it owes a lot to Mourinho’s midfield shape, but more on that later.
Mourinho has always thrived for a midfield supremo to dictate the terms in the middle of the park. He started his Chelsea days with Claude Makélélé who was soon replaced by an incredible Michael Essien. Not sure if he has managed to get a similar sort of player in this Chelsea team. Ramires offers great stamina up and down the pitch. But Ramires is more of a ball player, a box-to-box midfielder than an engine room, and is rightfully playing a bit higher in the double pivot system to utilize his driving runs from deep to greater effect. Frank Lampard is deployed in regista role, but he is yet to make the place his own. John Obi Mikel has been used sparingly in the holding midfielder role, but he certainly lacks the quality.
Mourinho wants his teams to be compact even at the cost of sacrificing his attacking edge. In his previous reign in London, he masterminded numerous 1-0 wins. While people criticized his team’s lack of goals, his defensive stubbornness cannot be neglected. In Inter (Italy) and Real Madrid (playing against Barcelona) Mourinho cherished his counter-attacking style and he looks to implement the same in Chelsea. After tinkering with 4-3-3, Chelsea looks settled in a 4-2-1-3 formation. Oscar is given the pivotal role playing as Number 10. Hazard is tucked in the right while André Schürrle is preferred over Mata in the other flank. Part of the reason might be José wants his wingers to provide width and track back giving cover to his fullbacks. Mata is not exactly proficient at either – even if deployed at the flanks, he tends to cut inside. This makes his side-backs vulnerable against the opposition where they can create a 2-vs-1 situation with a winger and overlapping fullback. One might argue, Mata would have been perfectly suited to play behind the striker, but there is a saying – Boss is always right!
Up front, it has been a strange season so far for Mourinho. He feels, and he might be right, Demba Ba is not able to carry a team to championship on his own shoulders. Fernando Torres has shown glimpses of form but he is far from his own devastating best. So the most likely starter should have been the young and raring-to-go Romelu Lukaku. But he gets loaned out and in comes an ageing Samuel Eto’o. Maybe Mourinho was certain of adding a top striker to his squad before the transfer window closes but now he has to make the best of what he has got.
And it seems, Mourinho is starting to get things right. He started a few games with Demba Ba – especially where his physical presence would be essential (against Norwich). But he has zeroed in on Torres to be his main front man and has tweaked Chelsea’s play to suit the Spaniard’s play. More through balls are being played from the deep so that Torres can run onto them like his Liverpool days and take on defenders on the run. And more often than not, he will find young wingers from both flanks racing with enthusiasm in his support. So much emphasis has been given, quick passing and playing through balls that Oscar, most advanced among the central midfielders, often drops back to control the pace of the match.
A few things have been quite eminent in Mourinho’s tactics so far. His fullbacks are not serving as an attacking option; they are merely the supporting cast. Both Ivanović and Cole are hardly overlapping their respective flank men, rather staying back to keep the shape intact. This adds stability to a shaky centre-half pairing. This in turn frees up Ramires as he has to bother little about spaces vacated by one of his defensive teammates and hence we are seeing a much improved and effective play from the Brazilian. Only thing, he needs to be a bit more consistent with his passing in the final third as shown below.
Another aspect of Chelsea’s play has been their discipline. Even though Mourinho has awesome attacking midfielders at his disposal – it would be interesting to see if he jampacks his starting XI with them sacrificing an out-and-out striker somewhere down the line in the season – he has restrained himself from floating them around. Look at Hazard’s movement in the following graphic. He started on the left flank, hogged the touchline and seldom floated elsewhere in the pitch. It was against a weak opposition (Cardiff) – but José’s instructions paid dividends as Hazard scored a brace.
There are still a few problems. Defence is not oozing with confidence and any team – like Newcastle – looking to take the game to Chelsea could trouble them. But it cannot be denied that Chelsea is a great team, especially in the attacking sense. Such has been their squad depth that players like Juan Mata, Willian and Samuel Eto’o are warming the benches. José Mourinho is a seasoned campaigner and he knows how to win a trophy. It is no coincidence that Chelsea have started strongly both in the league and in Europe – they mean business this time.
MAXIMUS TACTICUS: Bayern Munich
It cannot get more intriguing than this. Bayern Munich on the back of their treble-winning season is set to further establish their claim as the strongest team in European club football. Taking charge is the man who has masterminded the rise (and rise) of Barcelona, one of the best teams ever to play the beautiful game, according to many. Debojyoti Chakraborty analyses how Pep Guardiola shapes up the German superpowers
Change is in the air. With the onset of a new season, comes a fresh new series of Maximus Tacticus. Having covered the EPL clubs exclusively in the first season, we now look beyond and our first destination is the reigning European champions Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola returns to the limelight after a year’s sabbatical and he would look forward to emulate his unprecedented success at the Camp Nou.
One thing that Pep’s Barcelona lacked heavily was a strong defence. It is a testimony to their overwhelming attacking and possessional display that very few teams were able to exploit that weakness. At Bayern, Pep is presented with a strong defence marshalled by Dante and Jérôme Boateng. Behind them, German shot-stopper Manuel Neuer forms a solid foundation at the back. Pep likes to have attacking fullbacks; don’t be surprised if Philipp Lahm and David Alaba are deployed more as wingbacks this season. Their attacking forte is already on the show as the duo have provided with five assists, and the latter scoring twice already in the season.
Unfortunately, Javi Martínez is out injured currently. I have a feeling he might be deployed in the heart of the defence as a ball-playing centre-half (remember Javier Mascherano?). Pep loves to build up attack from the back and Javi will give him that option. Another aspect of Barcelona under Guardiola has been their pressing football higher up the pitch. The centre-backs often played close to the centre circle in an attempt to narrow down the playing area and intercept any through ball from the opponent. But at Bayern, he is urging his defenders to stay a bit behind while not in possession. This enables them to spread the ball wide and launch a counter-attack through fast-paced wingers.
Over the last couple of seasons, Bayern’s success has been built around its dynamic wing play which as a matter of fact is in direct contrast to how Barcelona evolved under Guardiola. But it seems Guardiola is adapting to the Bayern way than the other way around. Quite sensible I’d say, with Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben on the wings, not to mention some of the other aces up his sleeves.
Guardiola loves to have a jam-packed midfield even at the cost of out-and-out strikers. It is no surprise that he has not had the best of relations with his main striker during his managerial career. This time too he has shown his cards with the sale of main striker Mario Gomez and being happy with only one clinical finisher, Mario Mandžukić. The signs are clear that Bayern will play with one man upfront, or some time with the False 9 formation.
Precisely the reason why even after having a plethora of options in the centre of the park – Javi Martínez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, Thomas Muller – Guardiola has added Mario Götze and Thiago Alcântara to his squad. Schweinsteiger will continue to link up defence with attack in his usual midfield anchor-man position while Kroos will complement him in a box-to-box midfield role. Muller completes the three-man midfield where he would be the furthest man forward. This is the favourite formation of Guardiola where his asymmetrical three-man midfield dictates the play which is in direct contrast to their traditional 4-2-3-1 system. It is most demanding for Schweini as he is accustomed to play alongside another holding midfielder in a double pivot system but so far he is doing pretty well.
Guardiola can best be described as a football romantic and his thinking out-of-the-box presented us with the tiki-taka style of play. He loves to experiment and is eyeing an evolution, rather than revolution at the Allianz Arena. His much favoured 4-3-3 requires fast-tracking wingers and although world class, Robben and Ribéry are not really known for their defensive work rate. So Pep has his eye on a 4-1-4-1 formation where Lahm is positioned as a defensive screen. Lahm, or for that matter Javi Martínez, having very good control over the ball, are ideal for this linkman role which allows the game to spread more and gives more options to his wily wingers. It opens up the avenue for his central midfield pairing. Schweinsteiger can be partnered higher up front with either Kroos or Thiago. The wingers are encouraged to be involved in tika-taka, a short passing style of play, and their proximity to the respective fullbacks help them retreat easily while trying to defend. This pairing of wide players gives the team an added advantage in attack while Robben or Ribéry can cut inside to exploit the space vacated by the opponent fullbacks. The advantage of this system is that a single substitution, or even mere change of role of the on-field players, can alter the formation to a more robust 4-2-3-1 or a more attacking full throttle 4-3-3.
Bundesliga is much more defensively organized and far more physical than La Liga. It would certainly be hard for Pep to implement his favourite False 9 with 4-3-3 formation at Bayern. But one feels he would surely try it out at some point of time – maybe against a less fancied opponent in the league or in a dead rubber in the Champions League. He loves to have a pack of midfielders passing the ball around while interchanging their positions with maximum flexibility. And who says we do not have a Messi in Germany? Götze, the German Messi is raring to go!