Birmingham 0-0 Man City – why is Hughes not playing a 4-3-3?

November 1, 2009

Manchester City won their first four Premiership games of the season, playing a 4-3-3 system. Now, they have now failed to win any of their last four games, playing a 4-4-2 system. No-one is mentioning the shift in shape – one that appears to have weakened the side, and doesn’t bring the best out of any of their players. Why?

Firstly, Alec McLeish won this battle. OK, so Birmingham didn’t actually win the game, but they hit the post, missed a penalty, and had more chances. Against a line-up ten times more expensive, Birmingham were the better side.

There are two things to say about Birmingham’s shape. One, McLeish played an aggressive pressing game high up the pitch, closing down City’s midfielders and centre-backs immediately, even eighty yards up the pitch. Two, they played extremely narrow.

Mark Hughes played into Birmingham’s hands in both respects by playing 4-4-2.

1) The issue of pressing.

It is much easier to press the opposition if they are playing broadly the same system as you in the centre of midfield. So Bowyer closed down de Jong, Ferguson closed down Barry. Their obvious out-ball was to the full-backs, neither particularly good on the ball, who were then closed down byBirmingham’s forwards. Had City played an extra man (most likely Stephen Ireland) in the centre of midfield (c), they would have been able to play around and tire the rather elderlyBirmingham midfield pairing, and would have kept possession a lot more easily.

2) Not being able to exploit Birmingham’s narrowness

If the opposition full-backs (and wide midfielders) are playing narrow, the natural instinct is to go around them and get crosses in, especially if Roque Santa Cruz, a natural in the air, is your striker. Sadly, playing right-footed Bellamy on the left meant he constantly wanted to cut inside to shoot, a la Old Trafford (b). Stephen Carr, however, was experienced enough to constantly show him down the line, whereBellamy not once got a decent cross in on his weaker left foot. See the Guardian chalkboard (right) for a brilliant representation of how inept at crossing he is. Blue arrows are completed passes, red ones are failed. His only successful ball into the box came from a free-kick, headed over by Lescott (19). Every single cross failed. That is not a criticism of him, as it is of Hughes, for playing him in the wrong role. Shaun Wright-Phillips (a) was happy to go outside but simply played poorly, and is never a good crosser at the best of times.

Mark Hughes’ substitutions were particularly amusing because it appeared he had got the idea when you saw the player ready to come on…only for him to withdraw completely the wrong player. Ireland was finally introduced…but it wasn’t as an additional midfield player, it was as a straight swap for de Jong. Martin Petrov was next – would he be the one accepting Carr’s invite to get to the byline and swing crosses in for 6’2 Santa Cruz? No, because Santa Cruz was the one to make way, leaving 5’9 Craig Bellamy as the target man.

City would have been far better off playing a midfield three of de Jong, Barry and Ireland, the latter driving forward. That would allow them three fluid forwards – Petrov on the left getting crosses in, Santa Cruz as a target man, and then a nice choice between Bellamy, Tevez and Wright-Phillips on the right.

Hughes appears to be utterly clueless about his ideal formation, let alone his ideal line-up, at the moment. The only question must be whether his bizarre team selections are because of Hughes’ complete lack of tactical understanding, or because of pressure from City’s owners.


  • A striker who thrives on crosses must be combined with wingers who can actually cross the ball.
  • A 4-3-3 means the wide players’ job is probably 70% attacking, 30% defending. In a 4-4-2, it is 50-50. Playing a forward there generally means defensively you will be weak, and it was no coincidence that it was Sebastian Larsson, up against Bellamy, who was Birmingham’s best attackin player.
  • Craig Bellamy, Robinho, Carlos Tevez (all wide), Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz (both central) are all more suited to a 4-3-3 than a 4-4-2. Martin Petrov is probably as effective in either. Only Shaun Wright-Phillips should prefer a 4-4-2, but is probably the weakest of these seven players, so to pander to his preferences is stupid.
  • Stephen Ireland provides something no other Manchester City player can – driving runs from midfield. If Hughes wants to play two holding midfield players, the inclusion of Ireland can only mean a 4-3-3.

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