Roberto Mancini’s first-choice XI is likely to change as players return from injury and he develops a better understanding of the resources at his disposal, but if the team that started in the 2-0 victory at home to Stoke City on Saturday is anything to go by, City are set for a change of shape.
The team named by the Italian in his first game in charge also suggests things may be looking up for Stephen Ireland and Martin Petrov. Ireland was City’s player of the season last year and Petrov was arguably the best signing of Sven-Göran Eriksson’s tenure at the club, but both players have failed to hold down a first-team place this term.
The attacking riches available to Mark Hughes meant that Ireland was often sacrificed in favour of more practical alternatives, with Gareth Barry frequently paired alongside Nigel de Jong in defensive midfield behind four attacking players. Petrov, meanwhile, had started just three league games prior to the match against Stoke.
The diagram below, a screenshot from ESPN Soccernet, shows the average positions of City’s players in their 4-3 victory over Sunderland – Hughes’s last match in charge. Ireland (7) is City’s deepest midfielder, with Barry (18) just ahead of him. Shaun Wright-Phillips (8) plays in a surprisingly deep role on the right flank, with Craig Bellamy (39) on the left. Roque Santa Cruz (14) and Carlos Tévez (32) are the two strikers. Petrov (17) came on as a substitute in the 87th minute. Number 33 is another second-half substitute, Vincent Kompany.
Under Hughes, City typically lined up with two holding midfielders, two wide players and two forwards. Against the top clubs – Arsenal, Manchester United, Aston Villa, Liverpool and Chelsea – Barry and de Jong started in central midfield. Against lesser opposition – such as Wolves, Portsmouth and Burnley – Ireland was drafted in at the expensive of de Jong.
Prior to the victory over Stoke, Ireland had started alongside Barry and de Jong on only four occasions –the 4-2 home win over Arsenal, the 4-3 defeat at Manchester United, the 2-2 draw at Liverpool and the 3-0 loss at Tottenham on December 16. The three-man midfield was something Hughes reserved only for his team’s most challenging assignments.
City’s main failing this season has been conceding goals. Despite the deployment of two defensive midfielders, they have conceded 27 goals in their 18 matches to date, which is more than any other side in the top half of the table bar Sunderland (29) and only one less than bottom side Portsmouth. A defensive shield in midfield is clearly not sufficient when your four attacking players are either pure wingers (Petrov, Wright-Phillips) or out-and-out forwards (Bellamy, Tévez, Santa Cruz, Emmanuel Adebayor).
Against Stoke, Mancini sought to address this problem by lining City up in a 4-3-3:
Barry, de Jong (34) and Ireland adopt orthodox positions in a three-man midfield, with the right-footed Robinho (10) attacking from the left and the left-footed Petrov from the right in a Barcelona-style front three with Tévez at its apex.
Having three players in the centre of the pitch allowed City to outnumber their opponents – who lined up in a 4-4-2 – in midfield. Against Stoke, Mancini’s men enjoyed 64 percent of the possession and had 14 attempts on goal. Against Sunderland they managed exactly the same number of shots but only saw 56 percent of the ball. Furthermore, Mancini’s first match brought with it City’s first clean sheet since the 0-0 draw at Birmingham City on November 1.
Mancini will have big decisions to make when Adebayor and Wright-Phillips come back from injury and Robinho returns to full fitness, but the manner in which City controlled the game against Stoke suggests Ireland and Petrov can look forward to a lot more time on the pitch under their new boss.