Tempo key to City's road woes

Posted by David Mooney

Another week goes by and Manchester City drop points away from home. Its predictability is almost damning -- they haven't won back-to-back away matches since January. It's only the names of the opponents that seem to alter, the outcome is usually the same: no win.

It was evident in the Blues' 1-1 draw at St Mary's on Saturday that there is one key way to beat City on their travels. It's a system that it had originally looked like manager Manuel Pellegrini would implement himself at Eastlands, but it never really materialised. In the end, with how Southampton were setup and with how the visitors were struggling, I was surprised it finished all square -- by stoppage time, I was virtually begging referee Anthony Taylor to make me to close my eyes, tell me about the rabbits and then put me out of my misery with the final whistle.

The thing is, tactical decisions come in and out of fashion. When Jose Mourinho first rocked up in the Premier League in 2004, he implemented a 4-3-3 formation that swiftly became a 4-5-1 when his side lost possession. Soon, everybody was doing it.

When Roberto Mancini inverted his wingers after joining City in 2009, he was roundly criticised. There were calls on how Shaun Wright-Phillips or Martin Petrov had to cut back inside and slow attacks down. However, six months on, when the Blues had become an incisive possession side, critics were silenced and soon, everybody was doing it.

Currently the fashion is for a tactic that was first given publicity at Pep Guardiola's Barcelona. When they didn't have the ball, they would go hunting it in packs in the opposition half, rather than dropping into a defensive formation. That pressure didn't allow the other team chance to break, because they never had time to pick out a clean forward pass.

It's how Bayern Munich demolished City's midfield earlier this season, though Pellegrini's idea of just playing four across the middle that night was suicidal at best. But now, here in England, everybody's doing it, albeit to a lesser extent.

On Saturday afternoon, the Saints were well drilled when not in possession: Mauricio Pochettino had every single one of his players aware of where to be when City were in control of the play. The defence held a high line. The midfielders cut down the spaces for through balls. The strikers pressurised the visiting defenders, forcing slack passes and mistakes.

The end result was that, despite going in front, the Blues didn't ever have control of the match. When they did have the ball, they did little with it because of the high tempo and intense work rate from Southampton. When they didn't have it, they found it their opposition playing some slick football to break through and were rescued, on a number of occasions, by last-gasp blocks, tackles and saves.

Then the process started again: City won the ball back, were pressed into an error and gave it away. There's the old adage that a team can only beat what's put in front of them, and, in a similar vein, the Blues could only play as well as Southampton let them.

The problem with the high-pressing setup, however, is that it's a team thing. It's all or nothing. If one man doesn't pull his weight in doing his closing down job, the whole system falls to pieces -- because an opponent gets time to pick the pass that will unlock the high defensive line. Which is why, it seems, Pellegrini flirted with implementing the idea at the start of the season, but eventually chose not to.

As a side note here -- I've been looking all season for tactical nuances in the Chilean's 4-4-2 formation, but every week I'm seeing just a simple 4-4-2. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but maybe I'm suffering a hangover from the Mancini days, when 4-2-2-2 could become 4-2-3-1 could become 3-4-1-2 could become 3-5-2…

In this 4-4-2 system, Sergio Aguero and Alvaro Negredo have been working hard all season to apply pressure from the front. However, when it comes to the midfield, that's just not a style of play that suits Yaya Toure. He's very much like a wind-up toy in that he takes a little while to build up the necessary energy, but then bursts forward with unstoppable power. He doesn't chase and chase and chase.

Playing two in midfield doesn't make it simple either -- as it can put too much of a burden on those central players to get their opposite numbers under pressure, always leaving them with the chance of a quick one-two to break clear.

Similarly, it's difficult to hold a high line with a back four containing the likes of Martin Demichelis, Joleon Lescott or (earlier in the season) Javi Garcia, since none of them have been blessed with pace. A checked run onto a ball over the top undoes that in an instant.

City's form away from home this season might be more to do with Pellegrini being in a limbo with finding a system that is able to cope with both packed defences and teams that put his side under pressure. When playing at home, opponents have frequently shut-up shop early on in an attempt to contain the Blues, which has allowed the likes of Samir Nasri, David Silva et al time in possession -- something they don't get on the road.

If Pellegrini is to put in a title challenge this season, he can't rely on the squad's home form. He's going to need to pull one of those rabbits out of his hat and come up with a way to stay on the front away from the Etihad.


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