By Ewan Roberts
With Manchester City rocking from the news that talismanic creator David Silva will miss both the Premier League champions’ league clash with West Brom and their must-win Champions League tie against Ajax, an opportunity has arisen for Samir Nasri to step into the Spaniard’s cultured boots and prove his worth.
Silva was the league’s most prolific assist-maker last season, laying on 15 goals for his team-mates. The Spaniard is Roberto Mancini’s first choice attacking midfielder, his offensive co-ordinator, tasked with drifting between the lines, controlling possession and opening up the opposition.
Last year Silva played 2020 passes compared to Nasri’s 1587, averaging more key passes, goals and assists.
Nasri’s opportunities in the middle have been limited further in the wake of Carlos Tevez’s redemption and Mancini’s preference for pushing Yaya Toure into an advanced central role when in need of a goal. The Italian has dabbled with three at the back this year (with wingbacks), resulting in just one spot available for Nasri and Silva to fight over.
Though Silva’s importance to the side remains as steadfast as ever, especially in terms of possession control, his returns have diminished this year. In the Spaniard’s nine appearances in all competitions, he has just one assist and no goals. There are echoes of the spell between January and April last season where he failed to record an assist in 13 straight games.
|PREMIER LEAGUE LATEST
|15/2||Samir Nasri is 15/2 with Paddy Power to score the first goal against West Brom
Nasri has endured a troubled and stuttering start to the new season, compounded by an injury sustained against Real Madrid in the Champions League. Since successive goal/assist doubles against Chelsea in the Community Shield and Southampton on the opening weekend of the Premier League season, Nasri has failed to either score or assist in any of his following six appearances and has completed a full 90 minutes just twice.
Nasri’s best position is hard to define. Different managers, for both club and country, have tasked him with playing different roles, emphasised different facets of his game, but there has generally been one constant: Nasri has always been forced out wide to accomodate another player (whether Silva or Cesc Fabregas) in the middle.
The Frenchman was lethal in the first half of his final year at Arsenal, deployed on the right of midfield by Arsene Wenger and asked to make constant inward runs that baffled even the league’s best full-backs. That year Nasri scored 15 goals in all competitions for the Gunners, a tally only bettered by Robin van Persie.
For Man City, Nasri was switched to the opposite flank where he drove inwards onto his stronger right foot. Mancini, who used Javier Zanetti on the wing during his time at Inter Milan, emphasised Nasri’s defensive responsibility and stressed the importance of ball retention. He became less explosive, less of a goal threat, but recorded nine league assists compared to just one in his final year at the Emirates.
Under Laurent Blanc for the French national team, Nasri spent more time in advanced central areas of the pitch, often playing just behind Karim Benzema. Though occasionally positioned nominally on the flanks, much of Nasri’s pitch time for Les Bleus has come in the hole, affecting the match in the middle of the field.
But, when afforded the chance to dictate play in the middle that had been denied him at club level, the French press accused Nasri of being ponderous and indecisive, frequently labouring on the ball before passing backwards rather than penetrating forwards. This criticism would eventually lead to Nasri’s foul-mouthed rant and subsequent exclusion from the national team.
Despite Nasri’s greater consistency on the flanks, there is a sense that the position he longs to command is in the middle, the number 10 role. Partly because of how often he has been shunted out wide to accommodate first Fabregas and then Silva in the centre, the Frenchman is determined to showcase his ability relative to Spain’s great technicians, and keen to silence his critics with more than just a finger to his lip.
But it is also partly because of the prestige associated with the role, especially in light of Nasri’s links to and comparisons with Zinedine Zidane. Both born in Marseille, both of Algerian descent, both gifted French playmakers. But while Zizou flourished in an advanced central attacking role, Nasri has not.
Against West Brom Nasri will be provided the opportunity to prove his worth in the middle. City have not been entirely convincing on their travels, picking up five points from a possible nine with no clean sheets and a goal difference of just plus one. Last year they scored eight goals in their first two away games.
West Brom pose a stern test. Currently sitting in sixth place and just a point behind City, the Baggies have a 100% home win record in the league this campaign. More importantly from Nasri’s perspective, Steve Clarke fields two robust, tough-tackling defensive midfielders – Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob – who look to dilute the influence of number 10s and congest the space between the lines.
Far from the pushover one might imagine West Brom to be, the Baggies will test Nasri’s ability to find space and feed team-mates to the limit. Should he prosper against the restrictive combo of Mulumbu and Yacob, Silva might just find himself on the sidelines beyond his expected return date.
Follow Ewan Roberts on