Manchester City 2-1 Tottenham: Mancini’s three-man defence shows first positive signs

November 12, 2012

The starting line-ups

Manchester City turned the game around with a strong second half performance, helped by Roberto Mancini’s mid-game formation switch.

Mancini named Aleksandar Kolarov on the left of midfield, with Samir Nasri ill. David Silva returned on the right, while Matija Nastasic was again at centre-back. Javi Garcia was on the bench, and Mario Balotelli left out completely.

Andre Villas-Boas decided to use Emmanuel Adebayor upfront instead of Jermain Defoe, and Brad Friedel was picked ahead of Hugo Lloris.

This was an interesting tactical contest – Mancini’s switch wasn’t the only key feature, and it wasn’t the sole reason City won, but it was certainly an important factor.

General pattern

4-2-3-1 v 4-2-3-1, more or less, and the home side dominated the match throughout, with 62% possession and twice as many shots. It was an unusual type of dominance, though – especially as they found themselves 0-1 down at half-time. Tottenham weren’t complicit in City’s superiority – they didn’t sit back as willing victims, and instead tried to hold a high line.

In these situations you expect Tottenham to counter-attack quickly. They’d done so superbly at Manchester United, with a famous victory based around direct dribbling from deep positions, chiefly through Mousa Dembele and Gareth Bale. However, with the Belgian injured and Bale barely involved on the left (despite David Silva’s narrowness and Pablo Zabaleta’s early booking), Tottenham actually created very little on the break – which was particularly surprising as Adebayor had an excellent game. He dropped deep away from the Manchester City centre-backs, and for long periods often appeared to be playing Clint Dempsey’s role as well as his own – the American had a very quiet game.

While Tottenham’s productivity in open play was minimal, they went ahead through a set-piece. This has been a repeated problem for City in recent weeks, and they contributed to their downfall here by conceding an incredible number of cheap, unnecessary fouls near the flanks – although they stopped doing so after half-time.

Spurs high line

Tottenham’s  high defensive line was a problem, however. As mentioned after City’s draw against Ajax in midweek, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero have a good relationship when fielded as the front two – Tevez works the space between the lines and tempts centre-backs to come towards play, while Aguero sprints in behind. The latter is such a complete forward that reducing him to a pure sprinter feels unfair, but his incredible acceleration and intelligent runs makes him a real threat in that respect. This continued well into the second half, with Aguero fluffing a potential one-on-one with Friedel because of poor control, with the score still at 0-1.

Of course, if exploiting a high line you need incisive passing in addition to pace, and Silva drifted inside typically from the right flank. In the first half, he constantly overhit passes that trickled through to Friedel, although the fact he was continually getting space (by overloading the central areas) was a real concern.

City change

The line-ups after Mancini moved to 3-4-1-2

On 57 minutes, Mancini made his dramatic change. Nastasic was sacrificed with Maicon introduced down the right. Zabaleta and Clichy became the outside centre-backs, Vincent Kompany played in the middle. Higher up, Silva became a permanently central playmaker, in a standard 3-4-1-2.

Previously it’s been difficult to understand why Mancini has moved to three at the back. Against Ajax in Amsterdam, he suggested he was deliberately playing three at the back because Ajax only used one striker, which goes against conventional wisdom in leaving one spare man at the back. Against Real Madrid the decision was broadly more understandable, but he made the mistake of leaving his side incredible unbalanced, and the subsequent concessions from the right-back zone were entirely predictable.

Here, it made more sense. Tottenham weren’t strictly playing two upfront, but Dempsey is looked upon as a forward by Villas-Boas, and with Lennon and Bale now pushed back towards their own goal, the City three could deal with Tottenham’s two forwards effectively.

The real benefits were higher up. Using Maicon against Bale was a huge risk considering the Brazilian’s problems against him a couple of years ago, but Bale appeared frustrated by his lack of involvement and didn’t offer Jan Vertonghen enough defensive support. Maicon got into one-versus-one situations and powered past the Belgian easily – although the flip side was that Bale went on a decent run down a bare flank, his only real contribution in the second half.

More significantly, Silva moved into a central position between the lines, in a zone Tottenham were completely overrun in. With Dempsey now the responsibility of the centre-backs, Spurs now had a problem in central positions. Broadly speaking, the two Tottenham centre-backs and the two central midfielders were forced to deal with five City players, and Silva was naturally the man to find – and use – the space most effectively.


The obvious question is why Villas-Boas didn’t try to shut the game down. His only significant change was in the final five minutes, bringing on Kyle Naughton for Lennon – but it was a surprise that Dempsey remained on the pitch when he contributed so little either defensively or offensively. Jake Livermore, hardly a celebrated player but a more defensive option than Dempsey, would have been an obvious substitute. Villas-Boas has probably been put off by his early experiences at White Hart Lane this season, when he twice lost 1-0 leads after defensive substitutions.

But the perfect recipe for a late comeback was being created. Tottenham’s high line was mixed with the tiredness of their midfielders and the lack of pressure on the ball, plus  Silva becoming free. The Spaniard contributed to the first goal, although it was a scrappy move, but  his clipped pass for the winner was sublime – and in Edin Dzeko City have a reliable if reluctant supersub to score important winners.


One constant theme – Tottenham’s high line – mixed with a neat tactical switch from Mancini. We shouldn’t entirely credit City’s comeback to his formation change, because they had the momentum even with their 4-2-3-1, and Tottenham always seemed likely to tire. However, putting Silva in a permanent central position worked out excellently, Maicon caused danger down the right, and City weren’t troubled defensively. For the first time, three at the back worked for City in an 11 v 11 game.

More negatives than positives for Tottenham, despite leading for half the game. They didn’t counter anything like as effectively as against Manchester United, they didn’t close the game effectively at 1-0, Villas-Boas didn’t use his bench well, and his players couldn’t cope with a high defensive line against Aguero.

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