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  


Manuel Engineer Pellegrini
Manuel Engineer Pellegrini

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.

Jesús Navas flying high
Jesús Navas flying high

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.

City at home - emphasis on attack
City at home – emphasis on 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 has looked 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.

City away – indecisive
City away – indecisive

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.



Per Match


Per Match

Shots on target

Per Match




















Attacking record

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.

Worrying for Hart, City & England
Worrying for Hart, City & England

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.


Goal Against

Per Match

Clean Sheet


Per Match


Per Match



















Defensive record

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.

The Three Musketeers

The tinkering Man-cini has been trying his hands with a near obsolete formation at the Etihad camp. While he has drawn much criticism from some of his own troops, his strategy could pay dividends if used wisely. Debojyoti Chakraborty analyses the tactical switch adopted by Manchester City

For the last few games, Roberto Mancini has surprised quite a few with his new tactical switch by having a three-pronged centre-back system. Some among them are members of that backline.

“We’re used to a straight four and it’s twice we’ve gone to a back five and conceded, but the manager likes it.”

Micah Richards post defeat against Ajax on October 24, 2012

And this raises the question: Why this unusual approach?

Last season, quite a few teams had tried three men at the back with mixed results – while Wigan were caught napping by Chelsea, Napoli did quite well even in the European stages. But this tinkering by Mancini has been quite intriguing to say the least.

Unsettled Backline

Plagued by injuries, indifferent form and versatile nature of his back men, Mancini could not really zero in with a settled backline so far this season. Last year’s centre-back pairing of Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany has been disrupted due to injury to the former. Backup in the form of Kolo Touré has been a shadow of his past and Matija Nastasić is a raw greenhorn to be performing week in, week out at the top level. Aleksandar Kolarov and Maicon have been utilised more and more for their overlapping prowess further up the flanks rather than being conventional side-backs. Coupled with the injury hit season of Micah Richards, Manchester City is down to the bones in their defensive rare guard.

Lack of Wingers

Manchester City has a wealth of talents at their disposal but what they lack are genuine wingers, apart from Scott Sinclair who can hug the touchline. Both Samir Nasri and David Silva are classic examples of inverted wingers who would like to cut inside rather than take on the opposite fullbacks. James Milner can at best be described as the right-sided midfielder and this leaves City sometimes devoid of any width and their attack very one-dimensional. Using their fullbacks as proper wingers definitely spices up the attacking prospects.

Seems Logical then…

So, is it only lack of steel at the back which prompted the Italian to switch to a three-men-at-the-back system? Not entirely. Instead of adding more protection for aerial balls – the most common logic for bigger teams having an extra centre-back – Mancini added an extra man as a sweeper against Ajax to be more offensive. Considering Ajax were playing with only one man up front, it defied all logic. The three centre-back system was abandoned as playing against teams with only one forward, one centre-back could mark the lone striker, the second one could cover him making the third centre-half redundant and effectively making the team one man short in other areas of the pitch.

The tactic was baffling and not surprisingly, Manchester City could not get a result out of the match. Mancini though blasted his own players who publicly confessed their inability to apprehend the system. Never mind, the player in question is a perfect one to make the transition to back three anytime during the game as he is equally adept at being a right-back or a centre-half.

Back to School

City starting narrow against Real (l) Zabaleta’s positioning gave it away (r)

Against Real Madrid in the previous Champions League encounter, Manchester again suffered from the narrowness to start off with. It was a lopsided back four with Maicon visibly more interested in attack down the right wing and Javi Garcia from the midfield covering for the space left behind by him. Yaya Touré was more advanced of a congested midfield which prevented his direct runs from the deep.

With the introduction of Pablo Zabaleta and Kolarov during the course of the match, City shifted to a prominent back three which also saw Touré dropping deeper to influence the game. But poor positioning of the former jeopardised Mancini’s tinkering with the system. He was proactive while City were in possession – this was weird considering City was leading at that time – but strangely stayed more central while defending, giving the wide men from Real a free run. Eventually Real scored from the right side of Manchester City. Maybe the Italian needed some lessons on tactical awareness from his countrymen.

Try, Try, and Try till you Succeed

Against Tottenham in the league, though the system finally seems to have clicked. Pitted against a 4-4-1-1, where Clint Dempsey was playing almost alongside the lone striker Emmanuel Adebayor, three men at the back fitted to the tee. Zabaleta was caught napping with his lack of positional awareness last time and hence was deployed as the right-sided man in the backline. Maicon and Kolarov exploited the flanks effectively leaving David Silva to dictate the play from a more central position.

Classic 3-5-2

Solution within

It is not mandatory for a back three to comprise three centre-halfs. Mancini has brought in Javi Garcia, a ball-playing defensive midfielder – entirely different from the combative Nigel de Jong – and one would hope he will slot in as a defensive cover allowing the fullbacks to venture forward while Manchester City like to have a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 system. Barcelona have done this quite effectively under Pep Guardiola with Javier Mascherano, and later Sergio Busquets, deployed as the additional man at the back. But Mancini needs to be flexible yet reasonable – he cannot blindly push his wing-backs higher up the pitch especially against teams playing with a 4-3-3 or lone striker formation. Also he will be well advised to tune his team first with this kind of tinkering at home in the league matches before using the same in Europe.