Mancini’s switch puts City close to the title
It turned out to be the key substitution of the Premier League season. Samir Nasri off, Nigel De Jong on, and Yaya Toure higher up the pitch.
It wasn’t necessarily an attacking substitution or a defensive substitution – it changed the way City attacked, but there was no change in the emphasis upon attack or defence. There were still four players primarily to attack, and six to defend, with the full-backs pushing forward in both formations. There was a change of roles in midfield, with Gareth Barry becoming the shuttling player to move forward from the midfield duo, having previously been the deeper of the two holders.
The move worked excellently, with Toure getting the two crucial goals, but it was still a cautious change in the manner City attacked. Mancini felt the need to have two deep midfielders to protect Toure’s move into a number ten role, when many other coaches would have been happy with Barry holding and Toure free to drive forward and link up with the front four. That’s the way Jose Mourinho played late on with Inter during the 2009/10 campaign when his side desperately needed a goal – he moved from a system of two holders behind Wesley Sneijder in a 4-2-3-1, to a formation that was essentially a 4-1-1-4, with a huge split in the midfield and a clear separation of responsibilities between one holder and the number ten.
In that respect, Toure could have been deployed higher up, even without the introduction of De Jong to guard the defence. The frustrating thing about City’s play in the first half was that the two central midfielders sat so deep and didn’t break forward, presumably as Mancini wanted protection against Newcastle’s counter-attacks. But with Newcastle playing a straight 4-4-2 and Yohan Cabaye breaking from midfield rather than playing as an outright number ten, there could have been more fluidity. One incident in the first half demonstrated how City were suffering from that lack of drive – Pablo Zabaleta pulled the ball back, but with Toure and Aguero both in the six-yard box, the ball rolled harmlessly across edge of the box. Toure’s deployment higher up was probably needed sooner, so while Mancini deserves great credit for pushing Toure forward, it’s not inaccurate to say that it was a cautious way of doing so.
One of the key parts of Mancini’s substitution was the removal of Nasri, who was coming inside and eating into the space Toure should have been breaking into. The most natural move would have seen Nasri replaced with a wide player (Adam Johnson) to stretch the play and allow Toure forward. Mancini’s change actually achieved increased forward runs from the wing, in a sense, as Barry was shuttling forward – for Toure’s first goal that was particularly noticeable, to the left of the pitch.
But once City went ahead, the increased defensive protection was perfect for the task. City could sit with two holders ahead of the back four, and with Newcastle now coming onto them for the first time in the game, Toure’s drive high up the pitch was a threat on the break. He had a fine chance with a one-on-one he wasted, then scored the second goal to secure the three points. His versatility within the midfield zone proved crucial.