Thursday, 11 March 2010

Managers, tactics and traditions

For some time I've been meaning to write about the legitimacy of style-based criticisms of Roberto Mancini. I was preparing to do so after the Chelsea game, anticipating a fairly inspid 1-0 or 2-0 defeat. Things went fairly off-script that day, though, and so discussing criticisms of Mancini felt rather inappropriate.

But this week two genuine City legends have given authoritative voice to what are growing murmurs in the stands, the pubs and the message-boards: are Roberto Mancini's tactics too cautious, too joyless - and if so, are they at odds with the traditions of the club? First it was Peter Barnes speaking 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," said Barnes.

"The more attacking talent you have out there the better, for me, and those four going at teams with pace and skill is a frightening prospect for any opposition.

"Stick two from Gareth Barry, Nigel de Jong and Stevie Ireland in the centre, and that is your six to try to grab that final Champions League place."
And today we have heard from Colin Bell:
"It frustrates me," said Bell. "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, the theme was always that we were better than the opposition, so just go out and score more than them.

"We never laid our stall out for a draw. They had us believing that every game in which we turned out, we could win.

"If you aim for a win, a draw is acceptable. But if you aim for a draw, the only other result is a loss."
The content of these criticisms will be familiar to all City fans. Things are, without doubt, much more cautious under Mancini. Three defensive midfielders is the norm, as is the deployment of a cautious option - Pablo Zabaleta, Sylvinho, Gareth Barry - in wide-midfield. The full backs are much less buccaneering than they were under Mark Hughes, as are the whole midfield. All tactical systems are balances between defensive solidity and attacking fluidity, and Mancini has very clearly and honestly traded one off against the other. And he's probably right to do so, after the cavalier catastrophes of autumn 2009. (I mean, 3-3 against Burnley, at home! 3-3 at the Reebok! Blowing a 2-0 home lead against Fulham, and almost doing the same against Sunderland.) I think there's a broad consensus here.

The question, though, is whether there's anything particularly wrong with this. Does a defensive approach make for joyless football? And, even more importantly, does this fit with the traditions of Manchester City? Because the only reason I'm writing this today is because of the comments of Colin Bell and Peter Barnes, two players who understand as much as any others what City fans expect from their teams. I hope I'm not making any claims above our station here. I'm not saying that City are on a par with Barcelona or Ajax or Holland or Brazil, I'm not saying that our football is meant to be shimmeringly beautiful, or jaw-droppingly inventive ('Revie Plan' aside), but it is meant to be entertaining.

At the very least, you expect bodies to be thrown forward, and creative players to be given license. Since I've been a fan, I've been lucky enough to see Georgi Kinkladze, Paulo Wanchope, Ali Benarbia, Eyal Berkovic, Elano and Robinho in blue. Given that we've finished in the top half of the top flight three or four times in fifteen years that's a fairly impressive bunch. The non-performances of the Brazilians under Hughes was certainly frustrating (and I was pro-Hughes, rather than pro-Elano), and those results I mentioned above were infuriating, but I think one can legitimately argue that in his commitment to attacking football, and exciting players, Hughes was operating in the finest traditions of MCFC.

But this is where it gets really tricky: Mancini's catenaccio might just get us into the Champions League. We're probably very marginal favourites, given that Villa and Everton have still got to come to Eastlands. And Hughes' 4-2-4 was taking us to fifth or sixth at best. While nothing is guaranteed it is probably correct to say that by jettisoning the traditions of creativity and unpredictability, Mancini is increasing our chances of success. If we make it into fourth it will be our first time in Europe's elite competition since 1969. But if it's not done in the style of Joe Mercer's side, will it mean less?


alan said...

Finishing in the top four would be huge for us. With Sheikh Mansour's backing and the prospect of Champions League football, we could be in for a couple of mouthwatering signings over the summer. The whole profile of the club would be raised. For me, the ends would certainly justify the means.

As for Mancini, I think it's to early to pass judgement. Any decent manager joining us mid-season would have looked at the way we were playing and focused on the defence.

He may well be grinding out results this season in the hope of then being able to bring in players and to reshape the squad over the summer. He wasn't known for being overly defensive at Inter, so it's quite feasible we'd be more expansive next season.

It's a valid point that if we're to focused on defence, then we're in danger of missing out on fourth place by failing to score enough. It'll be fascinating to see what happens, and little wonder Mancini wanted Tevez back from Argentina!


Trading Losses said...

Essentially i agree with Alan. I'm prepared to accept that in order to develop a winning mentality, Mancini's first job was to make us more difficult to score against. Of course, a likely consequence of this approach is that we will play less expansively and create fewer chances.

In the longer term, i won't be happy to see gifted players like Ireland (assuming his form improves) left out of the side to accommodate cloggers like De Jong but, as Alan suggests, if we can make significant improvements to the squad over the summer then perhaps Mancini won't feel the need to populate the side with defensive players when he has more confidence in the team.

I don't think it's simply about the spirit of City and our traditions as a footballing side. If you look at United and Chelsea in recent years, they always go out to beat the opposition (See United with 10 men against Villa this season) and i'm sure that if we want to be successful, we will need to play a style of football that is consistently capable of beating the opposition.

trinder said...

For me, the ends would certainly justify the means.

Any decent manager joining us mid- season would have looked at the way we were playing and focused on the defence. playing and focused on the defence.

True dat.

pjdemers said...

I have to say that I'm in agreement with Wallace Poulter's comments on Norfstander's Vox Pops part 9 blog that we as City fans need to drop this its 4th or failure attitude. Even if we do obtain the coveted 4th place I do wonder if it would be too much too soon. We have quite a good squad but its going to take more than one season for them to start gelling and firing on all cylinders and challenging for trophies. I think the board have let their ambition get the better of them by focusing on 4th place this season are putting unecessary and unrealistic pressure on Manicini and the squad and this may be another factor on why City have been so cautious since his arrival.

Personally I would like us to stick with the squad we have (and the same manager) and continue to evolve methodically. We only need one or two more players to take us from a good side to an excellent one. Find an attacking central midfielder (that we've sorely been missing)and City will really mean business. While 4th place is an worthy goal it is bordering on becoming an unhealthy obession and the bigger picture should be on trying to make City evolve into a side that can contend for trophies over the next 10 years. I think the season will be a success if we secure 65 points regardless of where we finish in the table. Unfortunately I think I may be alone in that viewpoint.

TPB said...

Mancini's got a really tricky job on his hands, it's ridiculous to expect him to deal with the style problems as well. He's done a really good job with sorting out the defence.

Rios Dos Santos said...

As defensive as Mancini's tactics are, at least we're not getting as many draws as we did under Hughesy.

In the end it's winning that matters. It's the trophies that matters. Once you get there, then we can start worrying about how beautiful we play!

Let's get real, w're not Barcelona yet but we did play some exciting stuff this year - at Chelsea, at Manure.. it's not THAT bad is it? I'm sure people are starting to recognise City as a force..

Chas said...

I go to watch City to be entertained. Since Mancini took over, I have found the football dull. Consequently, for the first time in years, I've started missing home matches, even though I'm a seasoncard holder. Of course I want City to win, but life's too short to spend chunks of it watching paint dry.

Dan said...

Mancini doesn't do it for me at all and I don't buy this idea that he's revolutionised the defence. Fate played a big part in us being more solid at the back since injuries and the African tournament forced the introduction of new players at centre back.

He's also done nothing with the January transfer window other than bring in Viera - Johnson's obviously bugger all to do with Mancini. As an out of work manager surely he would have been keeping an eye on loads of players who he could impress a new club...and he bought Viera? The only good thing he's done is get banned for three games.

Hughes wasn't perfect and he was reluctant to take the impetous and shuffle the defence when it cried out for work but the team we have was and still is his work. I honestly don't think we would be any worse off if we stayed and we could have already had a trophy to show if he'd had the chance to finish the season.

To be honest I don't care about top four if the club has no faith in someones vision - and after buying Viera, o don't think Mancini has a vision. Get shut and get Moyes in I say.

Dan said...

Just to clarify that last point, I know there's great managers out there but I want a British manager rather than one of the prestige names that get shouted out and make the club even more souless.

Part of why I like Hughes is that we know him and he knows our game. He made me believe in the club - which Sven never did - and kept it from becoming another corperate super club.

So that's why I say Moyes. I don't expect anyone to like it.

Mark said...

There are two main priorities that I see we have - one is to get the monkey off our back and win some silverware - anything would do, but just to show the players and fans that it can be done, and to get that banner down at OT. The other is to be in a position to attract the sort of player that can really take us into one of the top 10 clubs in Europe. To do that, we need to demonstrate we can compete in the top competitions, and the CL is evidence of that. So, if it takes a bit of dull but profitable football then so be it - I've had 25 years of inevitable failure behind me watching City, and a few years of dull success would be a bonus.

trinder said...

Dan - Mancini's defence is half as porous as Hughes'. You can't say he's been lucky to have injuries and absences forcing the selection of a better back line, as by extension that would mean Hughes was unlucky to have his first choice defenders available.

I'm afraid Moyes is not the manager we need. We'll get to the next level by attracting the next level of player. That needs fourth spot and a manager with a reputation and record that Hamsik, Neymar, Chiellini, Subotic, Pato, Balotelli, whoever will admire. I just don't think the ultra talented are turned on by one FA cup runners up medal in eight years.

Time will tell what game Mancini really wants to play. I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, that this season's dour pursuit of fourth is the safest way to secure Sheikh Mansour's credit card for a summer splurge on circus acts, slavonic defenders and boyish scouse strikers.

wizzballs said...


Given the pressure and circumstances, and given the stylish nature of his Inter Milan and Sampdoria teams, I hardly think it sensible to label Mancini as a stereotypically defensive italian coach.

firstly, bell and co belong to a different era.

secondly, city are a work in progress. Mancini has been here three months. First 6 weeks were the honeymoon, everyone outdid themselves to impress him. Then we had a difficult month, where some players reverted to type, we stopped playing as a team, and some began to doub the gameplan.

We are only now beginning to see the shape and style of play Mancini truly has in mind. It is up to the players to stick to the plan. The shape was there in the Stoke replay, but certain players lost concentration after a great start... hopefully the second half display against Chelsea has erased the doubts in the minds of the players. theirs is not to reason why, it is to follow the bloody game plan and concentrate, concentrate, concentrate for 90 minutes. Either way, I am sure Mancini knows who he can trust, and who isn't adapting.

Let's not forget that Mancini has not had the opportunity to shape the squad. He is struggling with the same imbalance that undid Hughes:

There are simply not enough balanced players.

We have ultra defensive players, and ultra attacking players. We do not have enough tactically adaptable and responsible players, especially in the midfield. Apart from Barry, we have De Jong who never goes forward and Ireland who never goes back (hence the value of Zabaleta in midfield). And on the wings, Bellamy and SWP may 'track back', but they are one trick ponies, out and out speed merchants who are more likely to shoot than cross. They may be dangerous on the break, but they stretch our own team, and they are not suited to possession football. In my opinion, and presumably Mancini's, there is only room for one of the two. And that will always be Bellamy. Johnson is a different kettle of fish, genuinely unpredictable, capable of working the tight areas, and dangerous on either foot.

The bottom line is that Mancini is under pressure to get the results NOW. He has done very well to accrue two points per game under the circumstances. The icing on the cake is that he has done it in the way that managers build succesful teams in the long term. From the back. Cliche, or truism? I know where my money is.

Hughes tried the opposite approach, and it lead to 3-3 draws. It always has in top flight football. Organised teams triumph over talented groups of individuals, more often than not. This is doubly true in the Champions League.

With smarter, more technical players in some areas, I think Mancini will build a team that plays an aesthetic, intelligent brand of football. It will be more entertaining than Chelsea and Liverpool, that's for sure.