Manchester City 2-2 Ajax: Ajax pressing forces Mancini to change shape

November 7, 2012

The starting line-ups

Ajax raced into an early two-goal lead, but Manchester City pulled it back.

Roberto Mancini chose an unusual formation – something like a lopsided 4-2-3-1. Pablo Zabaleta returned to the side, while Javi Garcia and Sergio Aguero came in for Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli.

From the XI that defeated City 3-1 in Amsterdam, Frank de Boer dropped Tobias Sana and recalled Derk Boerrigter.

This was a peculiar match with a few different points of interest – City’s formation, Ajax’s pressing, and City’s continued struggles when defending set-plays.

City formation

Mancini has used something similar to this system previously – away at Napoli last season, for example, Balotelli was high up on the left – but it didn’t seem to work with this combination of players. Aguero didn’t look comfortable on the left and strayed inside, resulting in lack of width (covered by Gareth Barry’s movement to that side towards the end of the first half, which made the problem less obvious). Samir Nasri’s role was also a little confused – was he stretching the play or coming inside?

Carlos Tevez was upfront, pretty much on his own. He used to play that false nine role excellently, but no-one was exploiting the space created with his movement towards the ball, as Yaya Toure was forced into deeper positions because the holding midfielders struggled to get the ball forward.

Nasri was too far away, and although a couple of times his movement inside dragged Daley Blind out of position, creating a promising situation for Tevez to the right, this was rather the opposite of City’s intentions.

Aguero didn’t seem to understand his purpose on the left. Aguero and Tevez combined excellently at the end of last season as a standard front two, with Tevez dropping deep and Aguero making runs over the top – it was a shame Mancini didn’t use that format here.

Ajax pressing

Ajax had been positive in the reverse fixture a fortnight ago. As outlined excellently by 11tegen11, the surprise use of Christian Eriksen as a false nine worked very nicely, and De Boer continued with that system here.

Equally encouragingly, Ajax continued to press high up the pitch. This wasn’t frantic chasing for the sake of it (Eriksen moved towards the two centre-backs to close them down, but neither are particularly incisive with their passing and therefore didn’t need to be shut down urgently) but instead measured, intelligent pressure.

Ajax seemed to know that if they prevented simple passes towards Javi Garcia and Gareth Barry (with Siem de Jong and Lasse Schöne) City would find it difficult to get the ball forward, with neither of the two midfielders comfortable receiving the ball into pressure. This worked well, and City had to bring either Nasri or Toure deeper away from their marker get the forward passes going. Ajax weren’t creating much, but they were stopping City playing.


Ajax went ahead with two simple goals from corners, an area Manchester City have struggled from this season. As is customary, zonal defending got the majority of the blame, but the situation was more complex, as City were playing a ‘mixed’ system – part-zonal, part-man marking. In fact, it’s extremely rare to see a side that defends entirely man-for-man – certain zones are generally occupied anyway, particularly at the near post (almost by necessity, as the defending side always have a surplus of players in the box).

Anyway, the goals were actually conceded because of poor man-marking – Toure simply let de Jong go free for both goals. That said, the second concession was also a poor goal to concede from a zonal perspective – the position de Jong headed the ball from was the ‘first’ zone a side is supposed to concentrate on defending. Barry was there, but very deep and close to the post. Some sides (England under Fabio Capello, for example) defend with two men in that position, which brings more security.

Either way, City had eight versus four in the box for the corners – to concede two such cheap goals was criminal.

City changes

City got a goal back before half-time, but really improved in the second half after Balotelli replaced Garcia. This was more like the City of last season – Barry and Toure together in midfield, Balotelli driving from the left, Nasri coming inside to become a playmaker, and that Tevez-Aguero combination, with the latter on the shoulder of the last defender.

The style of the game turned – Ajax tried to cool the tempo from an early stage, but tired and their ball retention skills became less impressive. The game became more ‘English’, and despite the wide range of nationalities on the pitch, it was amazing how much Ajax dominated when the game was ‘Dutch’ – about pressing and good possession, and the extent to which City came into the game when it became about crosses and long balls. Their equaliser was the most classic English goal you’ll see – a long Joe Hart clearance, a Balotelli flick-on, and an Aguero finish.


In one sense Mancini’s changes were highly effective at getting City back into the game – but really, he just moved back to a regular system. The first-half shape was narrow and disjointed – it didn’t exploit Tevez’s ability to create space.

Ajax’s pressing was the main feature of the game – the way they moved up the pitch together in such a cohesive fashion was very impressive, and true to the club’s philosophy. City had problems last year because they didn’t move the ball impressively in deep positions – the signing of Garcia was supposed to improve thing, but he’s yet to have a significant impact.

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