Talking Tactics: Persisting with wrong formation is killing Manchester City

Even CSKA players knew that City were vulnerable on the break

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The Independent Football

The former Manchester United, Southampton and Stoke defender looks at what’s going wrong at Manchester City.

City are the only team I’ve seen who are trying to play 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 at the same time. It’s killing them.

City are set up as a 4-4-2 and the way that system works is well established. In a 4-4-2, one full-back should stay back to ensure there will always be three at the back. But City’s full-backs are attacking like a 4-2-3-1 – both going at the same time and the defensive midfielders join in, too.

If any CSKA scout, before Wednesday’s match, had watched City play West Ham, Newcastle and Manchester United they would have seen exactly the same vulnerability. They are not defending like a 4-4-2. They should be looking to have an attacking six and a defensive four. Instead, they had an attacking eight and a defending two. That means there is simply no protection for the centre-backs and City are most vulnerable when they attack.

It’s obvious they need to be set up as a 4-2-3-1.

I don’t know why Manuel Pellegrini – and presumably also the director of football, Txiki Begiristain – doesn’t see that City’s squad suits 4-2-3-1 incredibly well. All their full-backs are incredibly attack-minded. They have the creative players for a 4-2-3-1, with David Silva on one side, Samir Nasri, Jesus Navas or James Milner on the other and – to my mind – Yaya Youré behind the striker.

They also have the intelligence of Sergio Aguero, who will drop deep to create room in behind for runners or stretch the game himself. They have also spent heavily on defensive midfielders to provide the counterbalance. Why do they persist with the 4-4-2? It’s a mystery to me.

Yaya Touré must be as frustrated as hell.

He is one of the best attacking midfielders in the world, yet he’s being hugely under-utilised. He is taking a lot of the criticism for the way City’s game has dropped off this season but he is being asked to play a role which doesn’t conform to his strengths.

He isn’t a defensive-minded player, yet Pellegrini keeps playing him in the pair in front of defence, where he is expected to demonstrate the defensive side of his game. And then he gets stick when he doesn’t deliver.

It’s not as if City lack defensive midfielders. They’ve bought Fernando and Fernandinho. At one point on Wednesday night, City seemed to see the light. With Fernando and Fernandinho both on the field after half-time, Touré was sent up. But within 20 minutes Fernando was off and Touré was back where he started.

It’s healthy for players to have a little fear of their manager. I don’t see it with these players and Pellegrini.

I expected to see some public criticism from Pellegrini for the players who were sent off. I would certainly have expected that myself. Players know. Every manager I’ve played for would have come out and said that was unacceptable if I’d been sent off at a critical moment like that. Louis van Gaal did it after Chris Smalling’s moments of madness against City last weekend. Pellegrini gave Touré a get-out. He said it might have been “nervousness” in the player. Well, I’m sorry but there should have no get-out.

I felt a healthy fear factor for any manager I respected. Not a physical fear, but a sense that I’d be accountable. Maybe we are not seeing the full picture because Pellegrini doesn’t say much publicly, but I would go so far as to say that there seem to be a few untouchables in this City team.

I keep coming back to City’s lack of Plan B.

We talked about it on these pages last week. City’s Plan A is 4-4-2, their Plan B is frustration. They’ve been behind at half-time under Pellegrini  13 times now and still managed to win only three times, losing the remaining 10.

Teams know what they will get against City. They are sitting deep against them, drawing them in then just hitting them on the counter-attack. As one of the CSKA players said: “We knew that they were going to come against us with big numbers and we knew [as a result] that they are vulnerable in the counter-attacks.” Just as at Newcastle last week, there were no alternative ideas. City looked less likely to score as the game went on.