It is often quite difficult to define a manager in terms of the tactics, players and shape that they like to go with, as things often change to combat your next opponents, but one noticeable trait of Roberto Mancini’s during his time at Man City thus far has been his defensive attitude which not only stifles some of the clubs creative talents, but fails to get the best out of some of their most expensive acquisitions, namely in this case, £26m summer signing James Milner.
Milner, the swashbuckling try hard, a player that is both dynamic and versatile, has disappointed somewhat since his long drawn out move from former employers Aston Villa to Man City this summer that went some way to signalling the departure of Martin O’Neill from Villa Park.
Last season was a breakout season for the England international, establishing himself as Capello’s ‘go to’ man whenever a position needed filling in the national side, it was his deployment in central midfield that sparked such fine form that prompted moneybags City to move for him.
He scored 7 league goals and delivered an impressive 12 assists from his position just ahead of Stiliyan Petrov in the middle of the park last term, which it makes it all the more strange that despite such perseverance in pursuing his signature based on this form, Mancini has reverted to playing back Milner on the wing.
Of course, £26m (£18m in fact, with £8m value Stephen Ireland being exchanged in the opposite direction) was always way too much for a player that seems to lack the pace to truly trouble the best, but such is the way with the market being inflated for English talent, that a premium is put on such players simply due to the nature of their passports, coupled with the fact that every man and his dog knows that City have money to boot. Yet Milner, by his standards anyway, has been inconsistent this term and for this I don’t blame the player, but his current manager’s tactics.
Man City still very much have the look about them of a team of fine individuals as opposed to a fully functioning outfit, so much so that it prompted England international (still feels slightly odd calling him that) Kevin Davies to say as much via his Twitter feed after Saturday’s lacklustre defeat to City away from home. But it’s in Mancini’s inherent cautiousness that Man City have found their biggest achilles heel to date.
Quite why, with the likes of David Silva, Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli and to a lesser extent Adam Johnson and James Milner within their ranks and at his disposal, Mancini feels the need to persist with three recognised holding midfielders in their starting eleven is beyond me.
Gareth Barry’s slump has turned into the norm and he can no longer be expected to look anything other than pedestrian. Nigel De Jong, while a dirty bugger, is certainly one of the best enforcers around, so his position shouldn‘t be under any threat. Whereas Yaya Toure, despite a lovely pass to set up the only goal for Carlos Tevez at the weekend, looks lost at times in an unfamiliarly attacking role.
Toure is used to playing a full 15 yards further back, a role he’s played throughout most of his career, and while technically he is sound, he looks too cumbersome to provide the spark Mancini is looking for on a consistent enough basis and so the link between midfield and attack is often a stunted one, and the over-reliance on Carlos Tevez has become plain for all to see.
A simple remedy to this would be to abandon some of the shackles that seem to be holding this Man City side back and deploy Milner back into the heart of midfield to add a further attacking dimension to their play through the middle. To an extent, Milner may be tired from his excursions playing for his country in this summer’s World Cup in South Africa, as the fatigue that dogs so many after an international tournament seems to have reared it’s ugly head again this time around with many of the league’s elite that played that travelled to Africa this summer failing to sparkle, but I think in the main, it has to do with his role in the side.
This Man City side, at the moment, do not look like capable of challenging for the title, which sounds ludicrous given the amount of money they’ve spent, and it’s not down to so-called in-fighting or the strength of other sides, for this is the most open title race (not quite sure if it qualifies as one after 16 games yet, but hey ho) in recent memory and the league really is there for the taking this year with every other side possessing such obvious flaws.
The fact of the matter is that Milner, while adept at playing out wide, is not a £26m winger, or even an £18m winger depending on how you approach the value of Milner/Ireland deal. He simply can’t beat his man enough on a regular basis and while his delivery can at times be fantastic, to the tune of 4 assists so far this term, he is so much more when giving the license to tear around in the middle of midfield.
The form that prompted Mancini to part with so much of City’s hard earned came from the centre and that’s where he should be restored, otherwise Tevez will continue to be cut an isolated and frustrated figure and Milner will remain a casualty of Mancini’s meddling.