Midfield trios fail to offer a creative match changing spark
By Wayne Veysey at City of Manchester Stadium
Ridiculous as it may sound, Chelsea were almost the perfect opponents for Manchester City at a sun-dappled but curiously subdued City of Manchester Stadium.
As befitting a team that had plundered 20 goals in its first five Premier League fixtures, the reigning champions and Double winners did not arrive at the home of the world’s most cash-rich club with an inferiority complex.
Carlo Ancelotti named his starting line-up the day before the game, grinned ‘Good team, yeah?’ and sent them out to bulldoze City into submission.
Yet the formula of solid defence, three midfielders imperiously winning the possession battle and a trio of attacking assassins who can create and kill in equal measure came unstuck in a way that may have been familiar.
Essentially, Chelsea were out-Chelsea-ed. Not by the modern Chelsea. Ancelotti has set his team up in a framework that allows artistry and expression. City bore more than a passing resemblance to the team that Jose Mourinho built at Stamford Bridge – patient, cautious and strong but deadly on the counter-attack.
It was a template that proved equally successful at Inter Milan and one that Roberto Mancini, Mourinho’s predecessor at the San Siro and another catenaccio afficianado, is closely acquainted with.
Like Mourinho at Chelsea, Mancini has used the oil millions at his disposal to create a team that thrills only in spurts, and like Chelsea, the inclusion of three holding midfielders creates an engine which can fail to offer a creative, match changing, spark.
City, not pretty
Nigel de Jong
Both Mancini and Ancelotti fielder three holding midfielders in their starting line-ups, with Michael Essie and Yaya Toure the more creative of each trio.
With such systems, both coaches can rest assured that ball retention and solidity can power the front three, but in the matches where they require that extra bit of guile, that creative spark to unlock the door, both sides can be left wanting, despite their undoubted wealth of talent.
John Obi Mikel
David Silva, who is being given the time by manager and fans alike to grow into the playmaker role just off the main striker, offers the greatest prospect of fantasy and Adam Johnson is a speedy dribbler in the Arjen Robben mould. Mario Balotelli is an unknown quantity but should lift punters off their seats when he is fully fit and let off the leash.
For all their undoubted dynamism, the likes of Carlos Tevez and James Milner are not going to win too many prizes for aesthetic appeal.
That will bother Mancini not one jot. The feisty Argentinean, with captain’s armband now hugging his bicep to illustrate his importance to the City cause, and versatile Milner promise to be cornerstones of Mancini’s team.
Other building blocks are neatly fitting in place. Nigel de Jong, magnificently tigerish against Chelsea, and Gareth Barry have emerged as the midfield anchors, Vincent Kompany is the defensive leader and Joe Hart has the swagger and athleticism to be the best Premier League last line of defence since Peter Schmeichel.
Yet the trick that Mancini has not yet mastered – and will probably need to this season if he is to maintain his status as the Premier League’s most stylish touchline prowler – is to turn City into a relentless winning machine.
Mancini’s team have habit of conjuring wonderful one-off victories – the 4-2 triumph at Stamford Bridge last season being the most obvious exhibit in their gallery of memorable wins – followed by perplexing failures to chalk up points.
The 3-0 early season victory over Liverpool, another big gun who came to Eastlands with the intention of gathering three points not one, was followed by a last-minute 1-0 defeat at Sunderland and a 1-1 home draw against Blackburn Rovers.
Mancini blames this on the absence of a honed winning mentality. The dressing room hope to win but do not yet expect it, he argues.
This is a convenient explanation but does not satisfactorily answer why the former golden boy of Italian football has not settled on a formula that works against all opposition. Or even a template that can be tweaked to work against both the high rollers and the mid-rankers.
At this stage of their evolution, City’s greatest strength is their ability to soak up pressure and hit opponents on the counter-attack. Tevez’s goal yesterday was a classic example. City won the ball, Toure released the team’s talisman into oceans of space and the Argentinean’s desire, speed and confidence in his capacity to seize the moment did the rest.
Against opponents who defend deep, put nine outfield men behind the ball and leave 30 yards between the lone frontman and most attack-oriented midfielder, City have tended to struggle.
When they are expected to take the attack to their opponents, they have a habit of reverting to type and then flailing around in search of a plan B when the wheels come off.
Given the attacking riches at Mancini’s disposal, this will be tolerated for only so long. It is right that Silva is given time to adapt to the unique demands of the Premier League that can leave even the head of the even the most gifted player spinning. Likewise, Balotelli, Toure junior and Jerome Boateng, sure to be a key figure in the defence as the season progresses, also deserve to be cut some slack.
But there are enough experienced Premier League performers in the most expensively assembled squad in England for City to be effective against all-comers here and now.
After all, they won’t play Chelsea every week.