Mancini to use a three-man defence as plan B?

August 14, 2012

Manchester City's line-up in the Community Shield

Sunday’s Community Shield was an enjoyable, eventful match – but it was difficult to take too many conclusions from it. It wasn’t just that the match is something of an irrelevance (a feeling supported by the fact Branislav Ivanovic escaped a ban for his red card because the match isn’t considered a first-team game – Ivanovic is instead suspended from three reserve matches), but due to the red card itself. It arrived a couple of minutes after Chelsea went 1-0 up, and though Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea have shown their ability to withstand heavy pressure with only ten men previously, this is a large caveat when praising Manchester City’s comeback to win 3-2.

Roberto Mancini had provided great tactical interest, however, by lining up with the 3-4-1-2 formation he’d been experimenting with in other pre-season matches.

Last season, there was never a true consensus on what City’s first-choice formation was. It was flexible, and tended to change with the introduction of certain players, but in some matches the shape was somewhere in between a 4-4-2, a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-2-2-2. David Silva and Samir Nasri would come inside from the flanks, and the forwards generally worked as a duo. An alternative was to use two holding midfielders and Yaya Toure as the central attacking midfielder. In numerical terms, this wasn’t significantly different – a 4-2-3-1 could still be used to describe it – but it offered different qualities. City’s win over Newcastle was widely attributed to the decision to push Toure higher up the pitch with two holders behind him (although he probably could have been moved forward anyway, with just one covering midfielder). City’s different formations were all very similar.

For a real alternative, Mancini has looked to Serie A. Juventus won the title by frequently using a three-man defence, while Udinese and Napoli have overachieved with similar tactics in recent years. Napoli were the side that effectively ended Manchester City’s Champions League hopes last year, and their performance at the City of Manchester Stadium was particularly impressive. Napoli’s use of wing-backs over the past couple of seasons has been highly effective – through previously uncelebrated players like Christian Maggio and Andrea Dossena, they managed to cover a large amount of space on the flanks through sheer stamina from two only men, and then dominated the centre of the pitch with the extra men.

While Mancini has frequently been called ‘typically Italian’ in relation to a perceived defensiveness (criticism he’s shaken off after City’s 2011/12 campaign), he’s more typically Italian in his distrust of classic wingers. Adam Johnson’s lack of gametime at City is no surprise when you look at Mancini’s previous use of wingers. When winning the title at Inter, for example, he either used a narrow 4-3-1-2 (in 2006/07) or a 4-4-2 without natural wingers – full-backs ┬álike Javier Zanetti or Cesar were used further forward, or central midfielders like Dejan Stankovic, Esteban Cambiasso or even Patrick Vieira. There was a brief exception when Luis Figo enjoyed a decent run in the side, but in around ten years of management, Mancini has barely used a proper winger in his regular starting eleven. Nowadays, he uses David Silva and Samir Nasri on the flanks, often turning a starting 4-4-2 into a 4-2-2-2, like the excellent Villarreal side of 2010/11.

But despite this lack of enthusiasm for wingers, Mancini does want width. In fact, both wins over Manchester United last season were achieved because of clever wing play – in the 1-6 at Old Trafford, James Milner and David Silva crossed the pitch to consistently overload Manchester United in the full-back zones (with Micah Richards storming forward to increase the problem on the right) and in the 1-0 at the City of Manchester Stadium, Pablo Zabaleta exploiting the space Ryan Giggs had left bare was the key feature of the game. City’s full-backs picked up a lot of assists – Gael Clichy and Aleksandar Kolarov both got 4, Richards picked up 5. Zabaleta didn’t record any, but made key attacking contributions against both United and QPR in the final weeks of the season.

If Mancini trusts these players more than his wingers, and feels they can provide even more of an attacking contribution when supported by a three-man defence, the experiment with a three-man defence makes sense. Kolarov, in particular, would benefit from the move, as he was particularly good in his Lazio days in a 3-5-2. It was difficult to assess how the three-man defence itself did at the weekend – the game was played as a leisurely pace, and Chelsea’s full-backs attacked relatively little. The weakness of the 3-5-2 is its tendency to be outnumbered down the flanks when opposition full-backs advance.

More interesting would be Mancini’s selection of attackers. Last season’s formation afforded him four attacking players, the 3-4-1-2 would allow only three. It wouldn’t necessarily mean a choice between David Silva and Samir Nasri, however – the defensive base of the side is essentially just seven players, and the three attackers can play in any setting. Mancini could play a 3-4-1-2, a 3-4-2-1, a 3-4-3 and the defensive side of things wouldn’t change dramatically. This is what Walter Mazzarri did when Napoli were at their best – the defensive seven remained constant, but Marek Hamsik, Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi’s positioning changed subtly from week to week.

It’s difficult to see Mancini going with the 3-4-1-2 permanently – a four-man defence still suits his squad perfectly well – but it offers and intriguing plan B for City’s title defence.

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