Roberto Mancini has an almost impossible task ahead of him: rescuing a season that promised so much but, so far, has delivered only failure.
After winning the title last season it seemed like a permanent shift in power had occurred between the two Manchester rivals. Saturday’s limp defeat to Southampton showed that nothing of the sort has occurred.
Manchester City needs another miracle now: another total collapse from Manchester United. The chances of that happening are a lot slimmer than the odds of Chelsea overtaking them and claiming second spot.
Chelsea is just four points behind with a chance of being within a point of City if they beat them in two weeks. Rafa Benitez’s side also has a superior goal difference, and a win against the champions would give them the ideal lift and momentum at this final stage in the season to finish as runners-up.
Before the Chelsea game, City hosts Leeds United in the fifth round FA Cup tie. Both games are must wins and Mancini must work out how he can get the best out of a squad that he appears to have lost faith in. He has already indicated that he will drop players and said in a press conference that he only wants players who are ready to fight in the last 12 games.
The likely victims of the new regime are Gareth Barry, who had a car-crash of a game against Southampton, and Samir Nasri, who has been so anonymous this season that City should think about filing a missing persons report with Greater Manchester Police. Luckily for Mancini, and despite his constant protestations that his squad is not big enough, he has the players to find a winning formula.
Mancini has been on the lookout for a creative deep-lying midfielder for years, as his relentless pursuit of Daniele De Rossi attests to. The most successful sides in recent years have had a creative player who sits in front of the defence – e.g. Manchester United’s Michael Carrick, Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso and Juventus’ Andrea Pirlo.
Barry has never really been regarded as being as good as those players, and his poor form this season this season has prevented City from being the attacking force they were last season.
Javi Garcia will no doubt be his replacement for the remainder of the season. Garcia's hardly a world-class alternative, but he has played well in recent weeks and could be the solution to the other tactic that Mancini stubbornly refuses to abandon: a three-man defence.
As you can see from the chalkboard below, Garcia’s ability to play in both defence and midfield means that City can seamlessly switch from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 without having to make a substitution. In both formations there is a deep-lying creative midfielder, Garcia or Yaya Toure.
At the beginning of the season, tactical coach David Platt gave a fascinating interview with the Manchester Evening News about the 3-5-2 formation and how they were working on it to make it as offensive as possible.
All pre-season we have played with an offensive back three," said Platt. “We went to it last year a little bit to close games off, but what the manager has tried to work on all pre-season is the ability to be able to go to a back three if we want to, and be more offensive than defensive with it.
Robbie wanted to have a go at it this season, and we had discussions about it. Last year we flicked into a three at times, but we did it tactically, such as when we were 2-0 up with 20 minutes to go and someone puts a big striker on, to snuff out the space. Then it was done more from a defensive point of view in the last 15 or 20 minutes when teams were throwing everything, and the kitchen sink, at us.
“To add that other string to the bow, we had to have a good look at it from more of an offensive point of view, where we would have the wide centre-halfs coming out and playing with the ball rather than staying narrow, and we are getting the wing backs high.”
City has so far used two fullbacks to play in the wide centre-half positions, usually Gael Clichy and Pablo Zabaleta. Mancini should start looking at using a more conventional system, with two centre-backs and Garcia making up the defence. Instead of pushing the wide centre-halfs up the pitch, they should let Garcia move up and down depending on how the game is going.
This system also gives City a potent aerial threat throughout the game, something that will be particularly useful in the final 20 minutes of matches when opposing defences tend to tire and give away cheap free kicks.
This is a much easier system for the players to understand. Earlier in the season, after losing to Ajax in the Champions League, Micah Richards told reporters that they’d worked on the 3-5-2 a lot in training but he was still finding it difficult to follow.
Herein lies the problem with any complicated system or tactical innovation–footballers cannot follow a radically different system to the one they have been taught as schoolboys. Marcelo Bielsa has discovered this the hard way with his 3-3-1-3 formation at Athletic Bilbao. He may be a tactical genius, but he has had to teach his theories and innovations to mere mortals.
The only way to ensure the season doesn’t fall apart completely is if Mancini regains his faith in his players and the players renew their belief in Mancini’s tactics. For this to happen, it is the manager who will have to compromise.