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Mancini’s Man City: Italian Industry and the Yaya Toure Factor…

October 2, 2010

I wonder if Roberto Mancini got home on Saturday night, took a moment to scan through Ceefax (yes, it’s still in use), cracked open a bottle of fine Italian vino, and allowed himself a little smile. Yep, just a cheeky little grin. His Manchester City side had just beaten run-away league leaders, the seemingly unstoppable Chelsea, and were sitting pretty in fourth in the league after six games, having claimed four clean sheets in the process. It might still be early days, but this Champions League spot has to be the season’s predominant aim, especially having eluded the Citizens and their many millions last time around.

So, just what has Mancini changed over the summer up in the sky blue half of Manchester? Aside from the obvious purchasing of an abundance of yet more talented footballers (roughly a casual £125m worth) there seems to have been a tactical shift towards playing three central midfielders. Indeed, the world and his wife seems to have embraced the 4-5-1/4-3-3 phenomenon; playing 4-4-2 is about as popular as the Pakistan cricket team.

The key difference is that Mancini’s midfield trio of Nigel de Jong, Gareth Bary, and Yaya Toure are all in the more defensive mould. Barry regularly holds his own as the holding midfielder for England, and Yaya Toure used to perform a similar role for Barcelona… so why the need for three? It gives City a rather defensive – one might say Italian – approach to the game, with the attacking being left to Carlos Tevez and two wingers.

An Italian approach to the vogue formation maybe, but one that sees Manchester City two points and three clean sheets better off this season round compared to last years corresponding fixtures. It is an improvement that deserves examining, so just how has this tactical switch benefitted the team in their games so far?

Perhaps the best place to start is their recent victory against Chelsea, a team also known for their employment of three central midfielders. Last season, City went 4-4-2 with Barry and de Jong flanked by Robinho and Shaun Wright-Phillips. A quick peek at the passing stats reveals that this time with three central midfielders, City increased their total passes from 320 to 351, and that (as the graphic shows) a far greater percentage of them were made in the important central regions of the pitch.

This served to give City a greater control of the game, enabling City to make twenty-eight interceptions to twenty-four in the previous encounter, thereby reducing Chelsea from six shots on target last year to just four this year. Furthermore, Didier Drogba, so often Chelsea’s main man, was reduced to just three successful passes all afternoon, starved of supply from his midfield by Mancini’s central trio.

Manchester City once again beat Chelsea, but this time with a clean sheet. The clean sheet was key, especially against such a high-scoring opposition, as it shows a critical improvement in the Manchester City defence, something that could well prove key given that in seven of the last eight seasons, the team with the best defence (least goals conceded) has emerged as Champions.

The presence of the more defensively minded midfield trio also aided an improved result away to Wigan in their previous game. Manchester City made 443 passes this season at the DW Stadium compared to just 285 last time, an increase of 155%, with the enhanced possession allowing City to increase the number of shots they took compared to the previous season, consequently scoring one goal more. The central midfield dominance was also reflected in the fact they made more interceptions and restricted Wigan to fewer attempts on goal, altogether contributing to a 2-0 away win this season, as opposed to the 1-1 draw from last.

One of the best examples of how Mancini’s tactical shift has improved the Citizens, however, came in City’s opening game away to Tottenham Hotspur, a match they lost 3-0 last time around. Obviously, this time a clean sheet was earned and a point was gained, good progress against a team City will be rivalling for European places this year. Notably, however, City also had more shots in this encounter compared to the previous one (14-11), made more interceptions (26-20), and more passes (534-400), making those passes at a higher success rate (90%-78%).

Interestingly, however, in both games City lined up 4-3-3/4-5-1 with a central midfield trio. The key difference was that whilst de Jong and Barry played in both games, in last season’s defeat the attack-minded Stephen Ireland was the third member of the trio, whereas in this season’s draw, a more circumspect, restrained and composed Yaya Toure was selected.

Both Barry and de Jong’s passing stats only varied slightly between the two games, however Yaya Toure’s presence as a more defensive orientated midfielder saw him attempt seventy passes, completing an impressive sixty-eight of them, compared to Ireland’s thirty successes out of forty attempts. Importantly, as one can gather from the visual graphic, the majority of Yaya Toure’s passes were made in closer proximity to the half way line than Ireland’s were in the previous season’s corresponding fixture.

This serves to confirm how Mancini has implemented a more defensive (alas, a more Italian) approach when it comes to his side’s tactics for their games. Coupled with Yaya Toure’s consistency on the ball, reflected in his high pass completion rate across all games so far this season, it becomes apparent why Manchester City are better off possession-wise, pass completion-wise, clean sheet-wise, and ultimately points-wise this season in comparison to the corresponding fixtures last season.

As mentioned earlier, it is early days yet… the season is only six games young after all. However, the improvements garnered from Mancini’s tactical tweaks and astute acquisitions would indicate that City are more than well placed to challenge for a European place this season, and might be closer to the title than first imagined.

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