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.

Debojyoti Chakraborty

About Debojyoti Chakraborty

Debojyoti Chakraborty is a follower of English Premier League and European football. You can reach him at