Exploring new tactical concepts is becoming something of the norm amongst modern football managers. The days of teams being set out in the same old humdrum formations are long gone, the agenda now revolving on opponents having to second guess their own plan of action in order to gain the upper hand on field. Evolution has all but consigned the popular 4-4-2 to the history books in favour of the contemporary 4-3-3 ushered in during the early part of the millennium.
In the last two or three years the methodology surrounding tactics has altered significantly with managers now beginning to take a more in-depth, analytical approach. Manchester City, in particular, have benefitted from Roberto Mancini’s willingness to experiment with new strategies, the Italian introducing a functional model that has transformed the clubs fortunes during his two-year spell at the Etihad Stadium.
Of course many will contend the level of success during Mancini’s short reign is derived from the deep pockets of the clubs owners and, while that has indisputably played a part, overhauling a tactical framework that was in disarray during predecessor Mark Hughes’ reign proved just as crucial. The system he implemented was a relatively straight forward but vastly effective 4-2-3-1 that works on a double pivot of two disciplined holding midfielders, giving the players in advanced positions the freedom to attack in swarms and out number the opposition all the while retaining a sense of defensive stability.
So prevalent has this setup become that even England, famed for their persistence with the bog standard 4-4-2, started to adopt it prior to and during Euro 2012. The beauty of the system is that it allowed City to quickly transform into two banks of four when possession was surrendered thus preventing teams from hitting them on a counter attack. The ability to fluidly adapt their shape to changing circumstances throughout a game ultimately proved to be a fundamental component of their Premier League title success. 93 goals scored and only 29 conceded in 38 games. That tells its own story.
With that in mind Mancini’s decision to all but trash 4-4-2 as his secondary formation and utilise an unfamiliar 3-5-2, voguish in his native Italy, seems rather ill-considered. Dragging the players from the comfort zone of their current modus operandi has the potential to disrupt the flow of City’s play as has been the case on a number of occasions this season, namely the games against Liverpool and Real Madrid.
Both highlighted the flaws that come with using the 3-5-2 as City were left horribly exposed both out wide and at the back. The latter, in particular, saw Mancini’s plan to utilise the wing back system backfire spectacularly. Gael Clichy and Maicon, two players comfortable working as a defensive unit, proved incapable of managing an unfamiliar advanced role, offering up too much space to Madrid’s attacking wingers subsequently stretching the three man defence, pulling them out of position and causing a fatal imbalance in the defensive structure. Two of the goals conceded came down the right and were consequence of poor positioning.
Similarly against Liverpool the congestion in midfield stifled City’s creative players, while the central striker remained isolated in the final third allowing the opposition to easily steal possession and launch a counter attack when the ball is played forward or crossed into the penalty area. Still, despite the adverse results of his early season experiment, Mancini harbours aspirations of making the 3-5-2 work. It doesn’t bear thinking about the ramifications should he press the formation into service against Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United.
Converting mid-game has the potential to cause a high level of confusion across the field as the players attempt to make the transition between formations and put City on the back foot, especially if Mancini wants to use it to see out a game. Against an attacking 4-2-3-1, as we’ve seen against Liverpool and Madrid when they conceded in the latter stages, they will struggle to negate the threat of an advanced wide midfield if they don’t have a wingback capable of fulfilling both his defensive and attacking duties, further enhancing the chances of the opposition snatching a late goal and changing the complexion of a game in their favour.
City have already dropped four points from winning positions this season, drew three of their five games and failed to keep a clean sheet giving a clear indication that Mancini’s continuous use of the 3-5-2 to snuff out the opposition threat clearly isn’t having the desired effect. That is in large part down to his team selection and the personnel available to him, primarily in defence.
As mentioned before Maicon does not have the stamina, mobility or positional awareness to carry out the dual role of a wing-back, while Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov aren’t fully acquainted with the fundamentals of the position. Centrally Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott is a more than capable partnership on its own accord but throwing a third body in, for instance Matija Nastasic or Pablo Zabaleta, destabilises the status quo and causes a breakdown in communication.
Furthermore, when the three central defenders are yanked out wide to cover both the holding midfielders are forced to drop back and fill in, consequently leaving bigger gaps in the middle of the park for the opposition to exploit. It also proves why Mancini tried to fervently to sign Daniele De Rossi from Roma in the summer given his expertise in the role.
All that being said, managers should be commended for endeavouring to introduce new tactics and ideas as the game continues its evolution but picking their moments when do to do is crucial. At the current time Mancini’s obsession with teams second guessing his intentions is causing him to deploy his new pet formation at the wrong times and it has cost City in the opening weeks of the campaign. Their ultimate goal for the new term is to successfully defend their Premier League crown and keep rivals United under their jurisdiction. To do that he needs to abide by the formula that brought the clubs first top-flight crown since 1968 and pick the right moments to integrate his new system. Otherwise, aspirations of a second title winning season in succession will have to be put on ice.