Manchester City’s early exit from the Champions League has raised many questions. Most that have been raised concern the future of Roberto Mancini, but the more pertinent relate to the reasons for their failure. How is it that a squad that cost at least £300m to assemble has failed at the first hurdle in two consecutive seasons? The answer is simple: despite the colossal outlay, the City squad has been incoherently assembled; there is no formation or system that gets the best out of enough of their players simultaneously, and each setup Mancini chooses creates as many problems as it solves. Overall, it has been a failing of transfer policy as much as it has been one of tactics.
Last season’s title triumph was achieved almost exclusively using a narrow 4-4-1-1 formation which became a 4-2-3-1 when in possession. For the most part, David Silva started on the right and drifted inside, receiving and playing short passes in the number ten position. When used, Samir Nasri performed a similar function on the opposite flank, with James Milner and Adam Johnson offering more orthodox options on occasion. A conventional double-pivot saw either Gareth Barry or Nigel de Jong partner Yaya Touré in midfield, while Sergio Agüero played off of Mario Balotelli or Edin Džeko until Carlos Tevez returned from his self-imposed exile. Positional variety was a key theme: players in the third and fourth bands could freely swap positions or come together to create two-versus-ones, making it near impossible for defenders to mark or track direct opponents. If all else failed, Touré was given licence to roam and simply steamrollered through the opposition.
At the start of 2011-12, this system worked spectacularly well. City were unbeaten in their first fourteen Premier League fixtures, scoring forty-eight goals in those games. Their struggles in Europe, however, seemed to have a profound effect on the players, and with the second half of the season came a loss of form which nearly cost them a title they should have won at a canter. Silva, clearly exhausted after having taken on so much attacking responsibility, went three months without recording a goal or an assist. Agüero couldn’t score away from the Etihad. Džeko couldn’t score at all. The system that had worked so well had been neutralised, and the players who had so reliably made the difference now had to work twice as hard to score.
In addition to these domestic issues, the problem with City’s 4-4-1-1 has been obvious in continental competition. While City almost always enjoy a majority of possession, their domination is often sterile. They keep the ball in deep midfield but delay playing it forward. When, say, Silva or Nasri receive the ball, they often have to face a defence which has had time to organise, leaving them with little option but to recycle possession and watch as the ball goes out to the other flank. The two forwards are limited in the number of runs they can make because their partner is using the same space. Most importantly, they lack flexibility in a defensive sense, and any opponent that practices counter-attacking finds it easy to get in between the lines and create numerous goalscoring opportunities.
This is unsurprising: at the highest level, 4-4-1-1 is typically selected either with a deep, counter-attacking strategy in mind – as with Jogi Löw’s Germany in 2010 or José Mourinho’s Inter – or one that keeps a high defence and aims to use a barrage of crosses and aerial balls to create scoring chances – like Manchester United or Diego Simeone’s Atlético. City use neither plan. They have largely been able to avoid this becoming a problem in domestic competition simply by having much better players than their opponents, but to succeed in the Champions League a more innovative solution is required.
As the 2012-13 season has demonstrated, Mancini has yet to find one. Arguably, his biggest problem is that he has to choose a two-striker system: four of his best players are strikers, and expensive ones at that. Neither Balotelli nor Džeko is at his best as a lone frontman, so while they are first team regulars Mancini has to compensate for this. The 3-4-1-2 he has used this season does have some logic behind it: theoretically, City should benefit from having a spare man at the back who can move into midfield; a three-man midfield allows Silva or Nasri to play purely as a number ten, without moving back to a flank and supporting a defender when City are without the ball; the wing-backs, freed somewhat from defensive duties, can play a more adventurous positional game, staying high up the pitch and offering passing options.
The theory, however, has not matched the reality. When using the 3-4-1-2, City have looked just as predictable in possession and even more vulnerable to counters. The players chosen to play in the back three have not been those one would choose logically: Pablo Zabaleta has twice been selected at centre-back despite Javi García being patently suited to the libero role. Most alarmingly of all, without the ball no player seems to know what he is supposed to do to get it back. They have had some domestic success with the system, most notably at home to Tottenham, but this hinged less on tactical choices than on an individual error. The momentum was undeniably with City following the switch to a back three, but the key moment was an error from Kyle Walker, the Spurs right-back, who inadvertently slipped Agüero through on goal to equalise. Until that point, Tottenham had never looked in real danger despite being outnumbered in midfield.
In the Champions League, the back three has produced entirely negative results. With the system blamed for high-profile defeats in Madrid and Amsterdam, it was surprising to see Mancini choose it again on Wednesday. Once again, it proved a disastrous choice. Real Madrid should have been 4-0 up at half-time but somehow squandered all bar one of their chances. With City’s play predictably going entirely through Silva, Mourinho’s men easily snuffed out the threat and counter-attacked at will. Vincent Kompany, so reliable in a back four, looked like a Sunday League player in a three. Pablo Zabaleta, mystifyingly selected in central defence again, was out of position on a regular basis. Yaya Touré, City’s own transitions specialist, was made to look like an amateur by Sami Khedira. All of these are failings we have come to recognise as familiar when City use the 3-4-1-2.
The worrying thing for City’s fans is that there is no easy tactical solution due to the squad’s imbalance. It has become popular to criticise the use of the word ‘philosophy’ in relation to clubs’ tactics and transfer policies, but City’s lack of an overarching tactical idea has brought them to this point. In particular, the big money signings of Joleon Lescott, Gareth Barry and James Milner look mind-boggling at this point. Most damningly of all, City have spent over £300m without signing a winger of true quality, despite playing systems based on short passing and positional interchange.
With 4-4-1-1 and 3-4-1-2 having failed in Europe, Mancini will have to overhaul his squad if he wants to try a new system. They cannot replicate Barcelona’s 4-3-3, for example, with their current set of forwards. Nor can their current players replicate the systems used by Borussia Dortmund or Real Madrid. Instead, it seems, City are braced for more of the same. Having only recently cleared the last of the deadwood from Mark Hughes’ reign, one would think that City’s transfer business this summer would have been more prudent. However, the signings of Maicon, Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell do little to raise the spirits. While the latter may one day develop into a player worthy of his price tag, there is no doubt that the former two are not up to the standard required, with the Brazilian looking a rather rotund shell of his former self. If Mancini wants to succeed in Europe, he must choose one idea and embrace it.