REMEMBER Claudio Ranieri? He was an Italian manager who liked to change tactics on a weekly basis. Some weeks he would use a back three with wingbacks and two strikers, the next if would be 442, then he would use a back three with wingbacks and wide forwards either side of a single striker. He would also make changes several times within games, and to his starting lineups. For this, the British press dubbed him “The Tinker Man”. Is Roberto Mancini headed in the same direction?
I should make it clear that Mancini has won several titles in his career, while Ranieri has been sacked on several occasions. There is absolutely nothing wrong with constantly rotating your side and altering your tactics before and during games. In fact, those are two crucial attributes for any top manager. More limited managers, such as Martin O’Neill, simply pick their best XI and preferred tactics and stick to them for months on end. This is undoubtedly a reason why O’Neill has never got one of the bigger jobs, such as at Tottenham or Liverpool, who have appointed new managers numerous times in recent seasons. However, those changes have to be the right changes and with sound football logic. These in-game alterations are especially common in Italy, so it’s not surprising that Mancini has that inclination.
A look at Mancini’s City career shows that he has evolved as a manager in that time, just as his team has changed with new and better players. Some of his initial, ultra-defensive tactics in the big games was replaced last season by a very attacking approach. He went from using Gareth Barry, Nigel De Jong and Patrick Vieira as a trio of defensive midfielders at Arsenal (0-0 draw) in his first season to a 442 (generally speaking) with 2 strikers, and two narrow wide midfielders cutting in-field, with attacking fullbacks last season. In between those two extremes was a 4231 shape with Yaya Touré, a pure defensive midfielder at Barcelona, used off a single striker.
Mancini rolled out a new 352 this preseason. His side’s display in the Community Shield with that shape led many to predict that City would run away with the league this year (and that may still be the case; let’s wait and see). However, that back three has looked completely unsuited on practically every other occasion. What Mancini feels he is achieving by using the shape is hard to understand. Certainly, Aleksandar Kolarov is better suited to playing as a left wingback than as a left back, but few others players who actually suit a 352 have been used in that shape. It looks as if he feels that he needs a 3 man central midfield, but still wants to use 2 of his 4 outstanding strikers. 352 allows this, whilst also allowing either David Silva or Samir Nasri to play centrally. This means that one of them is only on the bench though, and usually the 352 will include one less attacking player.
City do have a big enough squad and enough options to use a starting XI which would suit 352. Imagine a side of Hart; Richards, Kompany, Lescott; Maicon, García, Yaya Touré, Silva, Kolarov; Tévez, Agüero (or Balotelli). That XI looks ideal for 352. Maicon and Kolarov are perfect for the wingback roles with their athleticism and crossing ability. Lescott, who played a large portion of his Everton career at left back, and has even played there for England on occasion, looks perfect for left centre back. He is also left footed, which is ideal when he is covering in the channel behind Kolarov. The same applies to Micah Richards, who has played a fair portion of his career at centre back, and his recovery pace would suit right centre back very well. David Silva would thrive behind the front 2, and occasionally move wide to create overloads with the wingbacks, and the front 2, who would be required to work the channels and assist in defending against opposition fullbacks. This appears a perfect role for Tévez, who is an incredibly hard worker and comfortable in the wide positions and between the lines.
Instead, Mancini has used Gael Clichy in the back 3 where he has looked out of place. Against Real Madrid, Vincent Kompany found himself at right centre back and appeared uncomfortable. When City switched to a back 3 against Dortmund, Mancini moved the left footed Matija Nastasić to right centre back and he was involved in the goal being conceded when Jack Rodwell’s poor pass caught him out because of poor body positioning. Mancini’s other issue has been some strange team selection decisions in Europe. Carlos Tévez, City’s best player for me this season so far, has not started a single Champions League game. James Milner is the perfect defensive winger against attacking fullbacks like Marcelo or Łukasz Piszczek, or to double up against threatening wingers (Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery last season). He had not started a single Champions League game for City until the defeat to Ajax. Joleon Lescott is another constantly dropped against any good opponent. Kolo Touré came in from the cold to start in Munich last year, and Matija Nastasić started against Real Madrid. He is 19 and had never played alongside Vincent Kompany before that game. In the league, Mancini used Balotelli on the left wing against Sunderland. He struggled and was substituted early. No wonder he was frustrated when his number went up. Balotelli also played on the left hand side at West Brom, and in the away defeat to Napoli last season. He has only started one game this season as a centre forward, and has played only 60 minutes of the Champions League campaign. So many players having to play unfamiliar roles has hurt City, and Micah Richards admitted the players prefer playing in a back four. It’s possible though, that Richards is only speaking for himself. Many English players don’t like to challenge themselves tactically. Juande Ramos’ failure at Tottenham is evidence of this, despite being an outstanding tactician when chasing games.
With the exception of central midfield, Mancini clearly has some great options in his squad. That area appears by far the weakest of the side. Barry is 31 now and no more than a good keep-ball squad player, Jack Rodwell is extremely raw and could not even make Everton’s side on a regular basis, and whilst Javi García is a good all-rounder who can pass, head and tackle to a good level, he does not appear to be a top player. Mancini has got the personnel, though, to use 352 effectively against certain opponents or 442 when 352 specialists like Maicon, Richards and Kolarov are not available. Using 3 central defenders against sides playing a lone striker and attacking fullbacks has left shortfalls in crucial areas of the pitch. These constant errors on his part are a big reason why City look likely to be eliminated at the group stage of the Champions League for the second season in a row. His record in the competition with Inter Milan is unimpressive too.
If the club has ambitions to emulate Chelsea and become the second billionaire-backed English club to win “The Cup with the Big Ears”, you feel Mancini might not be the right man. Chelsea had to sack Ranieri and appoint someone better to win the big prizes. City might need to do the same at some point down the line. All this makes the decision to give Mancini a 6 year contract all the more baffling. Is it genuine faith and security, or is it just meant to appear that way in public?