Football journalism tends to be a pretty cynical world and it’s not often you hear an intake of breath from an entire press room. But a little over an hour before Manchester City kicked off against Barcelona in the last 16 of the Champions League last year, the hubbub inside the Etihad was replaced by a brief
and disbelieving silence.
We looked at the team and we looked again. But it was true; City were taking on Barca, whose midfield had probably been the best in Europe for six or seven years, with a 4-4-2.
It was a plan so contrary to the received wisdom that, after the initial shock, there was a brief thought that such radicalism might be genius. The Spanish side had looked suspect at the back in recent weeks and their centre-backs rarely had to deal with a strike pairing, while David Silva and Samir Nasri were typical wide men as they liked to drift into more central roles to bolster the holding midfielders.
It didn’t, however, take long for the reality to become apparent.
The visitors took control of midfield and, with Lionel Messi dazzling, City were lucky to be only 2-0 down at half-time. Fernandinho’s introduction for Nasri just after the hour made City more competitive in midfield and they pulled one back, only for the dismissal of Gael Clichy to end their resurgence. It’s safe to assume that Manuel Pellegrini will not make the same mistake again.
One of the more mysterious features of the Champions League over the past four seasons has been the repeated failure of City: two group-stage exits and then defeat in the last 16 in the past two seasons. The suggestion that it is all down to a lack of experience in the competition only washes as far as City’s coefficient – which, because of the way they were suddenly propelled to super-club status by Sheikh Mansoor’s investment, is lower than that of equivalent clubs and has therefore made a harder draw more likely.
Under Pellegrini, there has at least been a tactical explanation. He has taken charge of 16 Champions League games with City, and in nine of them he has played with two strikers. It’s a trait that was becoming increasingly puzzling.
Now that’s not to say that there’s inherently anything wrong with 4-4-2.
As England manager Roy Hodgson has pointed out, most formations revert to two banks of four when out of possession.
The problem has been that the players City have had at the back of the midfield haven’t offered sufficient protection to the back four. This at least in part explains why Vincent Kompany looked so out of sorts last season, as he was repeatedly lured forward to try to win the ball in the space that should have been occupied by one of the defensive midfielders.
Apportioning blame when the failure was systemic isn’t easy and probably isn’t fair, but the questions about Yaya Toure last season were reasonable. Was his application lacking or was it just that, at 32, he no longer has the stamina to get up and down the pitch as he used to?
Either way, his indifferent form was part of a wider problem.
The early stages of this season suggest City may have resolved that and, despite again being drawn in a tough group, they may at last be able to impose themselves in the Champions League.
Significantly, the shape has changed, and so has the make-up of the squad. With Alvaro Negredo, Stevan Jovetic and Edin Dzeko gone, there’s little temptation to play with two centre-forwards – though Wilfried Bony and Sergio Aguero could play together if required.
There seems to be an acceptance that City will play 4-2-3-1 from now on, and that seems to have come with a greater defensive solidity – they didn’t concede at all in their first four league games, which included a 3-0 victory over reigning champions Chelsea.
More significant, though, is what the addition of Raheem Sterling has meant to the forward line.
Whereas Silva or Nasri would usually play on the left last season, drifting infield, the versatility of Sterling means that there can now be pace on both flanks. In those first four league games, Sterling has played in the left with Jesus Navas on the right, although Sterling did shift into the centre at half-time against Watford, with Silva moving to the left and Nasri coming in on the right.
The arrival of Kevin De Bruyne from Wolfsburg increases those options even further and presumably means less pitch time for Navas.
There is a knock-on effect as well. With pace on both flanks, teams will instinctively sit deep against City, but if they do, they risk leaving space that Silva can float in. Push up to restrict him, though, and the danger is that the opposition leave space behind for the pace of Sterling, Aguero and Navas to exploit.
After the weary trudge of much of last season, Pellegrini’s Manchester City are looking sharp again and, more importantly, they may have the balance and the compactness in midfield to make their mark in Europe.
By Jonathan Wilson