Mancini goes back to the future

Posted by Richard Jolly

Roberto Mancini dugout v NewcastlePA PhotosRoberto Mancini watched his City side see off Newcastle.

This was Roberto Mancini’s 2012 game plan against his 2010 tactics. A comprehensive win for his present against his past showed that while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it did not work for Alan Pardew.

Before adopting his 4-2-2-2 formation, Mancini became known during his first full season in charge for fielding three defensive midfielders even though, with Yaya Toure in a more advanced role, it was actually only two.

Pardew did name a more negative trio to protect his back four, even if injuries forced his hand. Lacking the invention of Hatem Ben Arfa, Jonas Gutierrez was moved to the wing. Without the creativity of Yohan Cabaye, the men in the middle were all essentially destructive players.

Vurnon Anita, James Perch and Cheik Tiote formed a trio with the Ivorian the deepest. If their selection together was enforced, it was also logical. Defensively, it allowed them to congest the area in front of the back four where nominal wingers Samir Nasri and David Silva usually appear alongside Toure.

Yet Pardew’s ploy failed because City were able to bypass the central zone patrolled by the three defensive midfielders, as they illustrated with the opening goal. Toure played a defence-splitting pass from deep; Nasri began his run a little wider than normal but came past the full back Davide Santon and squared for Sergio Aguero to tap in. While the Argentine had been offside in the buildup, it proved that overcrowding City’s preferred sphere of influence is not always enough to halt them.

Indeed, as their second chance -- a Carlos Tevez shot that Tim Krul saved -- showed, City’s wide men were actually playing wider than they often do. This stemmed from getting Silva in behind Danny Simpson; once again, they were pitting Silva and Nasri against the full backs rather than Perch, Anita and Tiote.

They were fed either by Toure’s long pass or angled balls played from closer range and inside to out or straight.

It also highlighted an issue with Newcastle’s 4-3-3. On the right wing, Papiss Demba Cisse is not a natural defender, which can mean Simpson lacks support. On the left, Jonas Gutierrez tracks back assiduously, but a quick break, like City’s opening goal, does not give him the chance to get into position. In both cases, it allows them to isolate the full back.

If opponents can look for safety in numbers when defending against City, the fluidity of Mancini’s men can make it difficult. The incident where Nasri struck the post is a case in point; he and Silva combined when both appeared on the visitors’ right wing.

While City’s second goal, when Santon aimed to volley Javi Garcia’s header clear, missed his kick and saw the ball go in off his standing foot, highlighted his awkward afternoon, many of his problems were positional. Conventional wisdom is that full backs should defend narrower against City, but Santon often tucked in too far. Whether Nasri, Tevez or Pablo Zabaleta, he found opponents going outside him and into space.

Where Santon altered the tactics of the game, it was by injuring Nasri. When Aleksandar Kolarov replaced the Frenchman, City were less flexible. Silva moved to the right; the Serb stayed on the left.

When Newcastle mounted a comeback in the second half, it was by aping their approach in the first 10 minutes, when they played at a high tempo, but also by changing tack. Pardew switched from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, moving Anita to the right -- though rather than operating on the touchline, he played more in the inside-right position.

It meant Cisse returned to his preferred position as a centre forward. If much of tactics consists of trying to get the likeliest scorers in a position to put the ball in the net, then that is particularly true of Newcastle. In the second half of last season, when Cisse was proving prolific, Demba Ba was shifted to a wider position. Now there is a role reversal, borne out by Newcastle’s goal if not the method or timing of it. Ba headed in from the middle of the penalty box, albeit from the second phase of play after a corner and after Cisse had joined him in a strike partnership.

A direct approach, aided by Anita’s set-pieces, troubled City. Newcastle won 59 percent of aerial duels. It eventually led Mancini to introduce a third centre back, Joleon Lescott, even after Toure had extended City’s lead. The centre back came on for Tevez, who, after Kolarov limped off, had been their third left winger of the afternoon. Bolstering the defence, and finishing with a back five, was Mancini’s response to a lack of options to sit in front of the back four. With Gareth Barry banned and James Milner and Jack Rodwell injured, the City manager found himself in a position he was rarely in two years ago: short on defensive midfielders.

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