Looking at the Premier League table as we approach New Years Eve, it’s slightly strange to see both Manchester teams sat happily atop the pile on 38 points apiece. Both clubs seem to have had rather rocky starts to the season, with inconsistency on the pitch often overshadowed by controversy off it – epitomised by the twin sagas of Rooney and Tevez, where toys were thrown out of the pram and then quickly scrambled back in.
Given all this, fans of each club could be forgiven for feeling a little relieved at finding themselves leading the title race. Manchester United fans especially will look forward to their usual post-Christmas form which may well see them surge to another title ahead of a faltering Chelsea and the traditionally inconsistent Arsenal. But Manchester City fans may rather ask themselves what might have been – if they’re top now, where could they have been if Mancini had got the best out of his team?
Because the simple fact is that despite Mancini’s hefty reputation, he has looked rather out of sorts in the City dugout for much of the season. With all the money in the world available to him and a squad that is on paper a match for any in the competition, Mancini’s job should be rather simpler than he is making it appear. All he has to do is get the best out of his players, but it seems to me that he is failing that task in two main respects.
The first may not be entirely his fault: there is a clear lack of harmony at the club. Mancini inherited a massive squad, and really he should have trimmed it down before adding to it, because those players who are not getting the regular appearances they feel they desrve are infecting the atmosphere around the squad with an edge of resentment and discontent. Even players like Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli, established regulars, haven’t shyed from rocking the boat already this season, and that is not conducive to a winning side.
The problem as I see it is that the players at Man City see their main competition coming from their teammates. They’re competing more against each other for a place in the side than they are against the players of other clubs when they’re out on the pitch, and it’s affecting the focus and their form. Mancini needs to find a way to unite the players and forge a real team spirit and unity – get them fighting for a cause.
He should have the ammunition that is required for such a task too. Because everyone else in the league hates Man City, they resent the club’s financial clout and the lack of dignity with which they conduct themselves. Justified or not, every club in the Premier League sees Man City as an enemy, an evil of the football world, and Mancini needs to encourage his players’ recognition of that perception. If he unites them under that discrimination, it will only make them stronger, and perpetuate the cycle.
More important though, Mancini needs to rectify his second failing which is that he does not know his best team. It’s not a surprising failure for a man with such riches at his disposal, but Mancini is clearly feeling some pressure to play his more recent signings and he is letting that affect the balance of his team. He simply needs to forget the egos, forget who he has signed, forget the price tags, and craft a balanced playing unit.
This problem was clear to see in Man City’s game against Everton before Christmas. After taking an early 2-0 lead Everton were able to sit back and keep Man City out for 70 minutes, 30 with only 10 men. That was because Man City had almost no width to speak of, and their attacks were focused entirely through the middle of the pitch. Everton thus defended narrowly, and erected an almost unbreakable barricade, reducing City to pot shots from distance which were either blocked or saved by Tim Howard. They simply couldn’t get behind Everton.
That’s because they played with David Silva, Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez as a front three. all of these are players who like to operate more centrally, and so although Silva and Balotelli were deployed as wingers, they always drifted automatically inside. Kolarov and Zabaleta made an attempt to get forward with some width, but were well tracked by Everton’s wide midfielders and simply don’t possess the requiste skills to go past a defender and get a cross in – they were always after a one-two or an overlap that simply wasn’t there.
The solution? Well it’s quite simple really, and listen up Fabio Capello, but they need to play Adam Johnson more often from the start. He is an out and out winger, and will hug a touchline which will stretch opponents far more so than they are currently doing. Though he does love to cut inside, he will invariably pick the ball up wide, by which point the damage is done because the defence is stretched. If Mancini is brave enough to play him and another out and out winger (maybe Milner) more often, they will have far more luck getting in behind defences, which will then play more into the hands of Tevez, Balotelli, Jo and Silva – all forwards who like to work in and around the box.
Whether Mancini is brave enough to sacrifcie some of his more recent expensive signings though – here’s looking at Silva or Balotelli – or to go with only one holding defensive midfielder rather than his preferred two is a question I can’t answer. He needs to recognise that he has the quality in his squad to really trouble teams and give his side more license to attack and express themselves.
Playing with one holding midfielder means that he can then deploy a front two and still have a man in the hole – Silva is the ideal candidate for this role – which then provides a wealth of attacking intent and a variable way of attacking. They can go down either flank, or throught the middle, or work some neat interplay between the flanks and work the ball into the box. At present, City are simply trying to smash their way in through the middle, but lining up as below would simply give them far more avenues of attack.
Zabaleta – K.Toure – Kompany – Kolarov
Johnson – Silva – Milner
Tevez – Balotelli
Of course, such a formation leaves no room for certain players, like Nigel De Jong, Gareth Barry and Patrick Vieira. How well these players would react to a lesser role in the team and Mancini’s ability to rotate these players effectively without causing still further uproar within the squad are issues that need to be addressed.
The simple fact is though, that City have not yet fulfilled their potential this season. That they sit joint top of the league (albeit having played two games more than neighbours United) will be some cause for joy for their fans, but that Mancini has stuggled to get the best out of his considereable resources will also make them wonder just what might have been. If the Italian had been brave enough to play more expansive attacking football – as has been so successful for even less talented squads like Blackpoll – then Man City could have been entering 2011 as clear leaders in the title chase.
As we approach the New Year then, Mancini needs to look back over 2010 and honestly assess the areas where he has gone wrong, and he has plenty of room for improvement. If they are to match the almost inevitable surge from Manchester United and remain in the title hunt come May, he will have to firstly unite all the factions of the dressing room under one banner and also settle on a clear idea, in his own head, of what his best team is. One thing is certain for Man City – they have the talent to win the League, but do they have a manager capable of utilising it?