A team’s greatest strength can also be its greatest weakness. Football is a game of balance and to prioritise one area is to risk being exposed elsewhere. Somewhere in those truisms lie the secret of Manchester City’s struggles away from home.
On Sunday, City rattled in another six goals. Nobody has scored more in the top flight at this stage of the season since Sunderland in 1935-36. Tottenham Hotspur were pretty bedraggled by the end, it’s true, but it was the constant energy and attacking verve of City that cast them into disarray. There were three main reasons why City excelled: the two strikers, the two holding midfielders and Jesus Navas.
Alvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero pose a problem not just because they are hugely gifted players with complementary skills, but also because they are a pairing. Opposing defences are so used these days to playing against a lone central striker that a pair of forwards represents a challenge many have forgotten how to solve.
Against a single striker, one defender marks and the other drops off as cover, picking up any runner from deep. Against a strike pair, both central defenders have to mark, which means cover must come from a full-back.
On Sunday, Jan Vertonghen found himself too preoccupied with the pace of Navas to do much in the way of shuttling behind Michael Dawson and Younes Kaboul, while Kyle Walker, the right-back, kept charging forward to support Aaron Lennon. That meant if Aguero or Negredo got past their marker, they were essentially clean through.
In theory, Sandro could have dropped back from his holding midfield role to support the central defenders, but he was hampered by vomiting and a yellow card picked up after 20 minutes, and by the fact that Yaya Toure and Fernandinho kept surging forward past Paulinho and Lewis Holtby. Sandro was too busy putting out the fires in front of him to deal with those behind him.
And really, its Toure and Fernandinho who sum up City.
Both are players who would once have been thought of as box-to-box midfielders. Now, with the midfield split into two bands, their natural position seems as the more attack-minded of two holders—or perhaps in Toure’s case as a central creative midfielder who can drop back and help with ball-winning.
Both would seem to need a more obviously defensive player alongside them: Toure has prospered with Gareth Barry and Nigel De Jong in previous seasons at City, while last season at Shakhtar Donetsk, Fernandinho played alongside either Tomas Hubschman or Taras Stepanenko.
Without a true holder, the pair have to organise themselves so that one sits while one goes, but even if their positioning is right, neither is a natural ball-winner. Repeatedly at home this season, against Newcastle, Manchester United, Norwich and Tottenham, City have overwhelmed opponents, getting so many players into forward areas that the opposition simply cannot cope.
The problem has come in away games—and at home to Bayern Munich.
Away from home, although City have often scored goals, they have also looked vulnerable. There is often minimal cover in front of the back four and even when opponents have broadly been outplayed, the natural tendency to attack that comes from home teams has led to opportunities and to goals.
Bayern, meanwhile, exposed City’s defensive inadequacy to an almost embarrassing degree. They will do that to a lot of teams, but given City’s investment and quality, that’s not really an excuse.
A way to accommodate both Toure and Fernandinho would be to employ a third central midfielder, but with two strikers, the only way to do that would be either to sacrifice width or to switch to a back three.
Neither solution seems natural either to the squad or to Manuel Pellegrini, and so City are left as a side that can overwhelm opponents, racking up huge scorelines, while always looking susceptible if pressure is applied.