After sorting out defence, Mancini is now free to pour forward
Priority of manager used to be austerity. Now, two years into his City tenure, comes the extravagance, writes Jack Pitt-Brooke
Saturday 17 December 2011
Tomorrow, on the eve of the two-year anniversary of his appointment, Roberto Mancini's Manchester City host Arsenal. After 24 months of convulsions, crises and at least occasional triumphs, City now certainly bear Mancini's stamp.
Not only are the players now meaningfully his but, as of this season, they finally play a style of football befitting their unprecedented costs.
All the criticism that Mancini had to face for his three defensive midfielders, his straight-laced full-backs, his clean-sheet fetishism, his lack of ambition, his half-a-billion-pound team playing frugal football, has been washed away this year by a tide of goals. City have scored 49 so far in 15 league games, including remarkable 5-1 and 6-1 wins at White Hart Lane and Old Trafford respectively.
Click here for graphic: 'From attack to defence and back again - How Mancini's City have developed'
That unusual path, from austerity to extravagance, owes itself to the situation Mancini inherited on 19 December 2009. Before he could teach City to attack, he had to educate them to defend. Mark Hughes's team were wilfully and unapologetically cavalier, and conceded more goals than any serious side could expect to do.
The first full season after the Abu Dhabi takeover was 2009-10 and after a summer outlay of £120m, on players including Carlos Tevez and Emmanuel Adebayor, expectations were high. Hughes lined City up in a bold 4-2-4, with the quick and direct Craig Bellamy and Shaun Wright-Phillips either side of Tevez and Adebayor. It certainly made for exciting football. City beat Arsenal 4-2 and, eight days later, lost 4-3 to Manchester United. But there was not enough discipline, or enough numbers, at the back, and not enough control in midfield.
This meant that City could not hold onto a lead. They squandered advantages in draws against Fulham, Burnley, Liverpool and Hull City, a run that ultimately cost Hughes his job. In the 17 league games Hughes oversaw that season, City conceded 27 goals, a rate of 1.6 per game. In Hughes's final months, Burnley, Bolton, Tottenham and Sunderland all scored three against them. So while Mancini's official instruction on becoming City manager was to qualify for the Champions League, conceding fewer goals was the only way to achieve it. A rebalancing, from attack to defence, was required.
Vincent Kompany, who only made his place at centre-back secure that winter, said in Mancini's first month that the priority was not so much defending as tactical discipline and nous. "It's not an emphasis on defence," he said. "I believe that he pays a lot of attention to details, and he makes it clear what he wants. Everybody on that pitch knows exactly what he has to do. We do a lot of drills and work on tactical situations every day. There's a lot of emphasis on tactics and intelligent football, before power and pace."
It was clear from the performances that order was Mancini's first priority. No longer did the full-backs and wingers attack at will, no longer were the centre-backs and midfielders left stranded and at the mercy of opposition counter-attacks.
Mancini tended to play 4-5-1, leaving Carlos Tevez up front on his own and adding a third defensive midfielder alongside Hughes's pair of Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry: either Patrick Vieira or Pablo Zabaleta. At times, he stuck with 4-4-2, but even then it was a 4-4-2 of entirely different emphasis from Hughes's side.
Fortunately for Mancini, Tevez did not need a strike partner to help him get goals. A remarkable scoring run, which started in Hughes's final weeks, allowed City to win games despite their overtly defensive approach. Tevez hit 20 goals in 22 games under Mancini that season, including three of the first five that Mancini's City scored.
Having such a productive striker was perfect for the Italian: allowing his team to play with even more solidity, and even less fluidity, than they otherwise would have done. The numbers do vindicate his approach: in the 22 league games Mancini oversaw that season, City conceded 21 goals, an average of 0.95 per game, better than Hughes's 1.6.
Not everyone was impressed by Mancini's caution, though. In March 2010, legendary City winger Peter Barnes spoke out: "I'd love to see, and I'm sure City fans would agree, a 4-4-2 with Adam Johnson on the left, Shaun Wright-Phillips on the right, and Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy together up front."
Worse was to come when Colin Bell, City's greatest ever player, expressed his disappointment with Mancini's defensive approach, and suggested it ran counter to the club's finest traditions.
"It frustrates me," Bell sighed. "I don't know if it's because he's a foreign manager, and it's the system he has played for years. Under Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer we never laid our stall our for a draw."
Regardless, the plan did not fully deliver: City lost the crucial Champions League qualification decider 1-0 to a rather more fluid and self-confident Tottenham side, and Mancini had the summer of 2010 to impose himself on the squad. The three best players under Hughes: Bellamy, Stephen Ireland and Robinho, were moved on to Cardiff City, Aston Villa and Milan respectively. Mancini spent heavily: buying, among others, two world-class midfielders from La Liga, Yaya Touré and David Silva, and two exciting full-backs, Jérôme Boateng and Aleksandar Kolarov.
The intention was for a more attacking City, with width from the full-backs and midfield support for Tevez. But Kolarov and Boateng both struggled with early injuries, forcing Mancini to dilute his plans. "Without flying full-backs like Boateng and Kolarov, who can push forward, I've had to adjust the team to get results and stay in touch with the leaders," he said in October. "But only until everyone is back and fit."
De Jong, who lined up alongside Barry in front of City's defence, conceded in September where Mancini's priority still laid. "He spends more time on the training pitch with the defenders to get them to realise that a clean sheet is holy," he said. "It took time but the main focus for him is to get the defence right because he knows we have enough quality to score goals, especially at home. That's what he preaches: make sure we don't concede."
After a 0-0 draw at Arsenal, Mancini admitted: "I prefer one point and being booed than no points and being applauded off the pitch."
Mancini's approach largely delivered. City had the joint-best defensive record in the league last season, conceding just 33 goals, 0.87 goals per game. The arrival of Silva and Yaya Touré added quality and penetration to midfield, though the team was still less prolific than it might have been. "If Tevez does not score a goal, we don't have another player who can," Mancini moaned in December. "We have had this problem since the start of the season."
It was enough, though, for City to finish in third place, qualifying for the Champions League for the first time, and to win the FA Cup, their first major trophy since 1976. And, with the defence now secure and the midfield authoritative, Mancini was free to address the one remaining shortfall: "We need to score 10 or 15 goals more than last season," he declared in August.
Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri and Gaël Clichy all arrived, with the left-back surprisingly proving at least as important as his former Arsenal team-mate. Along with Micah Richards, Clichy provided the width and pace from full-back that Boateng and Kolarov had failed to bring the previous season. The pair attackedin tandem, giving City options.
Nearly as importantly, Mancini felt enabled to drop De Jong. A master of destruction, but not imaginative, the Dutchman is no longer the keystone of City's defensive structure. Rather, Barry and Yaya Touré are trusted to cover defensively, while Silva and either James Milner or Nasri play outside them. Of course, the full integration of Silva, probably the best midfielder in the division this season, has been rather useful. But the whole team is now geared towards attack in a way that never used to be the case. "We play as a team and we defend very high," Nasri recently said. "That is why we're able to score. Our model is Barcelona and the way they press really high."
The transformation in styles has been as clear as that between a caterpillar and a butterfly. Even given a recent slow-down, City's 49 goals from 15 league games is 10 clear of the previous record, set 10 years ago by Manchester United. In terms of ambition, swagger and relentless commitment to attacking, they are unrecognisable from how Mancini started. It has taken two years, and of course hundreds of millions of pounds, but Mancini now has City where he wants them.
Comings and goings: Mancini's ins and outs
Ins: Patrick Vieira (Internazionale, free)
Adam Johnson (Middlesbrough, £7m)
Outs: Robinho (Santos, loan)
In: Jérôme Boateng (Hamburg, £11m)
David Silva (Valencia, £24m)
Yaya Touré (Barcelona, £28m)
Aleksandar Kolarov (Lazio, £17m)
James Milner (Aston Villa, £24m)
Mario Balotelli (Internazionale, £22.5m)
Out: Stephen Ireland (Aston Villa, part exchange)
Robinho (Milan, £15m)
Craig Bellamy (Cardiff City, loan)
Valeri Bojinov (Parma, £5m)
In: Edin Dzeko (Wolfsburg, £27m)
In: Stefan Savic (Partizan, £9m)
Gaël Clichy (Arsenal, £7m)
Sergio Aguero, Atletico Madrid, £38m)
Samir Nasri (Arsenal, £22m)
Owen Hargreaves (Man Utd, free)
Out: Jérôme Boateng (Bayern, £15m)
Shay Given (Aston Villa, £3m)
Craig Bellamy (Liverpool, free)
Shaun Wright-Phillips (QPR, £2m)
Total spent: £228m
Total recouped: £45m
Net outlay: £183m
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