Against Liverpool, Roberto Mancini decided to use three central defenders and two wing backs as opposed to a flat back four. It was a curious decision considering Manchester City were going up against a team playing a 4-3-3 and that City have rarely played with a three man back line. One supposes that if Mancini wants to make this formation a viable option he will have to use it sooner or later, and perhaps he chose to use it against Liverpool because they were are a stronger side compared to Southampton. After all, since he is playing five defenders his defense must be more solid, right?
When Rinus Michels was talking about his concept of Total Football he wasn’t just talking about players being able to interchange positions. While that is the main take away people have from his system it was about much more than one player staying back if another bombed forward. Total Football was about how one aspect of a team’s tactics effected the rest of the team. It was erroneous to alter one part of the squad and assume that nothing else was effected.
In Manchester City’s case the switch to three centre backs and two wing backs didn’t necessarily mean that their defense was now more solid. What one needs to consider is how this change in formation effects the other players — the ones higher up the pitch. James Milner and Alexander Kolarov were the two wide players for City. It stands to reason that since there is an extra centre back covering for them that they have more license to go forward than if they were playing as full backs in a back four. While this was true, neither wing back had anyone naturally ahead of them to provide support. Milner and Kolarov were expected to patrol their wings against Liverpool’s 4-3-3. This meant Liverpool had a full back and a winger coming up against City’s wing back and they were outnumbered in that zone. Raheem Sterling, for example, did well tracking Milner. In the end he didn’t always have to since Glen Johnson was there in support. This meant the youngster could at times stay high up the pitch and run at Kolo Toure.
This was another downside of Mancini’s back three against Liverpool’s front three. When the home team’s wingers stayed high up they were 1v1 City’s central defenders, and wingers generally have the advantage in individual battles with lots of space, especially against central defenders compared to full backs. Sterling’s direct runs caused Toure no end of problems and it’s a wonder that Mancini didn’t ask him to switch with Pablo Zabaleta. The Argentine utility man was playing as the left sided centre back and was up against either Luis Suarez or Fabio Borini, two more natural forwards. It would have made sense to stick Zabaleta, a more natural full back, on the side of the winger while putting the centre back on the side of the striker. It is but another example of how a decision on one part of the pitch can effect another, unexpected area.
Of course we would remiss not to talk about the other side of the field. Mancini effectively traded two wingers for one central defender in this formation. That leaves him with a surplus player. Where did he go? In this case he became an extra forward. Carlos Tevez and Mario Balotelli started up front with Samir Nasri in behind them. Theoretically this meant that both Liverpool centre backs were occupied and that the Reds had no spare man at the back to cover. But we must go back to the mantra of this article — no tactical area of the pitch can be looked at in a vacuum. Yes, both Skrtel and Coates had a man to mark in his immediate area, but Liverpool had a numerical advantage on the flanks. Thus, if a Liverpool winger tracked back to mark a Man City wing back that left one of Liverpool’s full backs free. It also meant that Liverpool had more joy in those areas in general meaning less meaningful attacks from City in those zones; it was harder for the visitors to supply Tevez and Balotelli in the first place. And it’s not as if Zabaleta could step up and provide an extra man to dominate the midfield for Manchester City, he had to contend with one of Liverpool’s front three exploiting the space in behind him.
In the end City got a point at Anfield, not a bad result especially considering how the game played out. Mancini’s side relied on two errors from Liverpool’s defense to draw level and the Italian manager can be accused of over managing in this match. However, his flaw was not necessarily trying something new. It was not recognizing that his new tactic’s theoretical advantages in one part were overshadowed by it’s deficiencies in other areas. Perhaps he wants a more pragmatic formation, thus the extra defender, but simply throwing an extra defender into your side doesn’t necessarily mean you now have a better defense. Conceding as few goals as possible isn’t simply achieved by stacking your back line with players although that is a natural thought. It is about dominating possession, territory, and different zones on the pitch. Of course, it is entirely possible Mancini simply chose this match to experiment. He could have known that a change to a back four was ideal (and he did just that, after the introduction of David Silva for Milner). However, even if it was an experiment for introducing a new tactic for tougher matches it definitely needs some work.