Manchester City have been drawn with a ridiculously tough group, it would be unfair to suggest otherwise, with both Dortmund and Real Madrid capable of going very far in the tournament. But City are not poor in comparison and if they are at their best they are capable of beating both sides. However, this fruitless European campaign has been dogged by Mancini’s tinkering to the shape.
Don’t for a second think that I am dismissing the virtues of 3-5-2 because when it’s used correctly it really does work. With the right players, it provides the illusion of always having an extra man in defence and an extra man in attack. A very good Juventus side demonstrated exactly how with a comprehensive beating of Chelsea on Tuesday night. But City simply don’t have the players to work the system.
For a start they simply don’t have three centre-backs in the squad who are good enough. The need to use Pablo Zabaleta there a clear enough sign of the deficiency they have in that position. Meanwhile Yaya Toure looked both completely isolated and wasted in the holding midfield role, with Samir Nasri and David Silva offering little defensive help from more advanced positions.
For the 25 minutes that City operated in the 3-5-2 they were appalling. The goal itself had nothing to do with the shape, that was down to an inexcusable lack of concentration from a player with so much experience that he should know better. How Maicon allowed himself to completely switch off like that and miss the sizeable presence of Karim Benzema is beyond me.
But that does not hide the fact that the visitors could and should have been at least three goals up by the time City reverted to their usual shape. Although there was an element of logic in the attempting to double up on Cristiano Ronaldo with the use of Zabaleta and Maicon, it failed to acknowledge that the Portuguese winger may simply roam to other areas of the pitch.
Ronaldo’s roaming nullified Mancini’s tactical decision and that City were still in the game after the first 25 minutes had elapsed was very fortunate. Sami Khedira should have scored twice, while Ronaldo himself had an effort cleared off the line when he really should have finished the chance off.
Whilst the system worked against Tottenham, the situation allowed it to. Spurs were really struggling and City may well have gone on to win that game without the change regardless. Either way, that match was the exception to the rule as the system has otherwise completely failed for City. I understand the manager’s desire to have an alternative but it seems too forced and just doesn’t suit his players.
I suspect that, just as many casual observers fear the worst when City use a 3-5-2, so do the players. They seem uncomfortable and unsure of their roles, resulting in them playing well within themselves. Within moments of them reverting to their usual shape, the game completely swung.
Suddenly, confidence grew and the pace with which City played at increased. Silva and Sergio Aguero became more and more influential, while Nasri looked a lot more effective from his wide left position. It was almost like somebody had called “all change” and 22 new players had taken to the field, swinging the balance of the game entirely.
With the change at half-time, introducing Javi Garcia for Aleksander Kolarov, City looked even better. Hindsight is a lovely thing but Mancini should not have needed this to know this was the right way to set up in a must win game.
Whilst Madrid had chances to kill the game off, they were effectively playing on the counter attack even before the sending off of Alvaro Arbeloa. As the game developed and once the full-back had been sent off, it was almost completely one-way traffic. Indeed, had Iker Casillas not made a superb save to deny Aguero, City’s Champions League future could still be open.
Just as an aside, the decision to replace Aguero with James Milner in the dying minutes of a game when chasing a winning goal was bizarre. Obviously introducing a midfielder for an attacker is not always a defensive move but the Argentinian looked the most likely goal threat and James bloody Milner? That must have been a head in hands moment for many City fans.
From the moment the draw was made this was always going to be a tough campaign, however Manchester City have not done themselves justice throughout. Mancini has a poor record in Europe, with both Inter Milan and City, and this may well have formed part of his thinking when attempting to adopt a new system.
However, part of being a successful manager is being flexible. It has clearly not worked, sometimes causing catastrophic results within minutes of switching, and Mancini should have acknowledged this and shelved his plans for now. While his domestic record has been excellent, with an FA Cup and league title to his name already, I wonder whether his failures in Europe again may prove costly. He will be hoping he gets at least one more chance to guide City through a Champions League campaign.