On Sunday Manchester City’s title chances were dealt a huge blow when they dropped two points against Liverpool. They stand nine points behind the leaders and now have a mountain to climb if they are to defend their title.
Equally disappointing was the news Roberto Mancini received about his talismanic captain in the build up to the Liverpool game. Vincent Kompany is still nowhere near returning from the injury he sustained in the 1-0 FA Cup fourth-round win at Stoke City and could be out for at least another three weeks.
Kompany was forced to come off after just 40 minutes against Stoke when he again aggravated the calf injury he first injured towards the end of last season. Since then, the injury has flared up on a number of occasions, and he even had to return early from City’s preseason tour of Malaysia for treatment.
In a press conference after the FA Cup game, assistant manager David Platt said, “It is a concern that it's not a fresh injury. The calf is the strangest muscle. There is probably more recurrence than with hamstrings, groins and things like that and it has happened on a couple of occasions.”
There was already a concern that Kompany was the only right-footed central defender left in the squad with Micah Richards injured and Kolo Toure away playing for the Ivory Coast in the African Cup of Nations. The Elephants surprise quarterfinal exit in the tournament has come as a relief to City as the Toure brothers early return means they will be available for Saturday’s game against Southampton.
There is no real replacement for Kompany and he will be missed regardless of what Mancini does, but there are a number of different options for the manager to consider. He could play Joleon Lescott with Matija Nastasic, like he did against Liverpool, but Mancini prefers to play a left-footed defender with a right-footed one. Kolo Toure’s return means he now has a right-footed defender available, but we know that Mancini doesn’t have much faith in him and rarely plays him.
The other solution is the much-maligned three at the back formation. Against Liverpool Mancini took Nastasic off after 57 minutes and brought on Aleksandar Kolarov to form a three-man defence. Lescott, Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy were flanked by the two marauding wing-backs, Kolarov and Maicon. He used a similar formation against Stoke when Kompany limped off.
The unusual thing about Mancini’s three-man defence is that it is not a defensive formation but an offensive one. Most teams in the EPL switch to a back three when they are struggling to deal with an aerial threat, and it’s unheard of to use players like Clichy and Zabaleta, defenders who are not blessed with aerial strength in a three-man defence. For Mancini, three defenders is less than four and he often frees the wing-backs of any defensive responsibility, enabling them to give City the width they lack in a flat back four.
The key to the three-man defence working is Javi Garcia. After a difficult start to the season, Garcia has settled into a defensive midfield role, filling the space in front of the defence.
Garcia’s ability to play in both midfield and defence could allow Mancini to switch from a flat back four to a three-man defence during a game without making substitutions. If a four-man defence isn’t working then Garcia can drop back to form a three-man defence and let the full-backs push forward to add extra bodies into the midfield and create some width.
If Mancini works on a more fluid system that can seamlessly switch from four at the back to three then he may have the solution to Kompany’s absence from the side. The question Mancini really needs to ask himself is what the three-man defence gives his team besides width because the way he has used the formation so far has left both fans and players confused.