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.
Europe’s Best XI for 2011-2012 Season
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The Champions League Final on May 19 at the Allianz Arena marked an end to the latest European season. With its fair share of drama, controversies on and off the pitch and above all footballing brilliance, it has been quite an enthralling season. Let’s take this opportunity to look back at the season that is gone to decide upon a team of eleven players that can be put across as Europe’s Best XI.
Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer
The Bavarian shot-stopper in his first season at the club has been in imperious form. He set the club record of maximum time without conceding a goal bettering the previous record of Oliver Kahn. Bayern Munich has been sort of unlucky as they ended the season trophy-less but they went on to play the final of Champions League, the DFB-Pokal Cup and finishing runners–up behind Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga. During the course of the season, Neuer was hugely influential for his team as Bayern conceded the least number of goals in the domestic league. In the Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, he saved penalties from Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo to take his side through to the final. So probably there is no other candidate who could stake his claim as the keeper of the team more than Neuer.
Defender: Branislav Ivanovic
The Serbian defender was probably the most consistent performer of the Champions League winning Chelsea backline. He is not a traditional right-back but was preferred in the position ahead of the inconsistent Jose Boswingwa. Ivanovic always provided security at the back with his no-nonsense approach, at the same time he was never shy of going forward and helping out his strikers. Chipping in with a few goals added further dimension to Ivanovic’s repertoire (five goals, which includes the winning goal against Napoli, from a defender in a season is an asset to any team). Chelsea’s topsy turvy season took a complete U-turn under their care-taker manager Roberto Di Matteo and it was his defensive organisation that won plaudits. Ivanovic’s virtuoso performance in the way to the final, especially against Barcelona in two legs of semi-final, deserves special mention.
Defender: Mats Hummels
It can be safely said that Mats Hummels is the most talented upcoming defender in Europe. At such a tender age, the maturity shown by this lad is tremendous. His game-reading, positioning, tackling is top-notch and in spite of being a centre-back, his ability to bring the ball out of the defence to initiate attacks marks him special. His vision and eye for a pass is quite exceptional unlike other rugged German defenders of recent times. For the last two seasons, his partnership with Neven Subotic has been a hallmark of the brilliant Die Borussen side and when Subotic was absent for a period last season due to injury, Hummels single-handedly marshalled the defence to see his side through that difficult phase. Keep an eye out for Hummels as he will continue to develop as one of the finest modern defenders.
Defender: Vincent Kompany
It has been quite a fairy tale season for Vincent Kompany, the captain of the Manchester City side that reclaimed the League after a gap of 44 years. Kompany was a true leader of the side in every sense of the term. He led from the front with his solid displays right through the season. It is hard to remember a single match where he took a wrong step. With the experienced Kolo Toure absent at the start of the season, he took up the responsibility to settle City’s defence. Kompany was so important to Roberto Mancini’s plan that when he was absent in City’s line-up due to injury and suspension, his team’s performance clearly suffered and coincided with a slump in their form. Along with this, Kompany’s ability to chip in with important goals was crucial in City’s success. City fans will fondly remember his header against their archrival Manchester United in probably the championship deciding match.
Defender: Giorgio Chiellini
The Italian defender who is considered by many as a suitable successor to Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini was a standout performer of the unbeaten Juventus side. In what has been a standout season for the bianconeri, the side only let in a staggering 20 goals throughout the season. Chiellini who is strong in the air and never hesitates to go in for tackles stood up for the challenge every time and together with his fellow defenders formed a defence which was nothing short of a rock wall. At the same time it is interesting to note that Chiellini had one of the highest conversion rates in terms of accurate passes which shows how he helped his team to build up attacks from the back, thus providing a solid foundation on which the team’s success was built.
Midfielder: Yaya Toure
What a buy this Ivorian midfielder has proven to be for the newly crowned English champions! For the last two seasons, he has justified every penny that has been spent after him. This season he has gone from strength to strength and has responded every time City has looked to him to get out of a crisis situation. There are opinions that bench strength of City is what that makes them stronger than their closest opponents, but Toure is probably one of the fewplayers who can’t be replaced in this brilliant City side. When he was away on duty for his national side in AFCON, City was visibly short of options to replace this midfield dynamo. What makes Toure special is his ability to adjust his game according to his team’s need and situation. Mancini has preferably used him as a deep-lying midfielder but whenever required pushed him up to create havoc in the opponent box. His consistency throughout the season was a treat to watch.
Midfielder: Xavi Hernandez
It’s sometimes very difficult to assess the level of impact of this midfield maestro’s contribution to the all-conquering Barcelona side. May be a few statistics will make clear the high level of standard that Xavi maintains week-in and week-out. He made an incredible average of more than 100 passes per game with an ability to find his teammate at 92.6% accuracy. In terms of creating goal-scoring opportunities, Xavi plays second highest number of key passes in the team behind the one and onlyLionel Messi. Make no mistake, he is the man who makes this genius Barcelona side tick. His contribution will only be felt properly once he decides to hang up his boots.
Midfielder: Andrea Pirlo (C)
The best masterstroke of Juve coach Antonio Conte was signing of this midfield general. The way Pirlo inspired the Turin giants to their dream season is quite exceptional. In the opening game of the season that saw Juve demolish Parma 4-1, Pirlo created two goals and completed 110 passes! Gigi Buffon later told La Repubblica: “It’s the bargain of the century for us. Seeing him play in front of my back line, it made me realize that God does exist.” Pirlo carried this form throughout the season and lived up to his nickname of l’architetto (the architect) . On the field, his poise, control and vision was remarkable to say the least, he played the second most number of passes after Xavi in the continent and conjured up the maximum number of assists (13) in Serie A. Along with these, his class, composure and leadership skills helped Juve to its record-breaking season.
Forward: Cristiano Ronaldo
Just look at Cristiano Ronaldo’s statistics for the season (60 goals in fifty-five games!); except the genius of Leo Messi, it is difficult to see which other present day footballer can scale those heights. He led Madrid to their 32ndLa Liga title last season thereby ending Barca’s reign for the last three seasons. Ronaldo scored the winning goal in the season’s last El Clasico derby at Nou Camp which literally ended Barca’s hopes of a consecutive fourth La Liga title. It was also a big response from Ronaldo who has been previously criticized for his lack of match-winning performances in the El Clasicos. It will be interesting to see whether Ronaldo manages to win his second Ballon D’Or this year.
Forward: Lionel Messi
The boy wonder has continued to amaze the football world with his exceptional talent this season too. He managed a staggering 73 goals this season, by far the highest ever scored by a player in a single season. In terms of assists, he is second highest behind Mesut Ozil. In terms of trophies, he and his Barcelona team may have ended the season on a disappointing note but on the personal front, he has pushed the level higher and higher – the highlight of his season being the scoring of five goals in a single match against Bayer Leverkusen. The Messi magic has continued to startle us for the last four seasons and words are no longer sufficient to describe his achievements.
Forward: Sergio Aguero
Last season was his first in English football and what a special one it turned out to be for Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero. He scored quite a few crucial goals that helped Manchester City to their title after 44 years. Every City faithful will probably remember for years the goal Kun scored in the stoppage time against QPR that ultimately clinched their title from the grasp of their fiercest neighbour Manchester United. He became the talisman for City as the season progressed and scored goals when it mattered the most. His partnership with David Silva was quite exciting at times and besides scoring goals, Kun helped his team with some assists too.
So that’s the team selected as representative of Europe’s Best XI for the season 2011-2012. There is no denying the fact that some wonderful players had to be left out of this team in spite of their brilliant individual performances throughout the season. Special mention must be made of Robin Van Persie, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mesut Ozil, David Silva, Joe Hart, Mario Gomez, Franck Ribery and Antonio Valencia who were brilliant last season. However, it doesn’t matter whether these gifted players get into a team or not, they will continue to perform at top level for coming seasons and mesmerize every football fan.