By George Ankers
Roberto Mancini may say that a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid is not a terrible way to exit the Champions League, on paper at least.
But the truth is harsher than that; Manchester City were dumped out thanks to a performance far worse than the scoreline suggested, a harsh penalty and red card, and a lack of any visible plan.
Mancini likes to point out that this is only his team’s second season in Europe’s elite competition but, no matter how many times that they have played the continent’s big boys, the Premier League title holders should at least know what they are trying to do.
The Italian’s tactical plans this season have flitted between three and four at the back, with various combinations further upfield, at almost random intervals. Micah Richards gave the game away after the defeat to Ajax when he admitted that the players struggle to understand such switches.
In this case, the change from three to four was enacted after just 20 minutes after a frankly humiliating period in which Madrid battered the home side and should have scored at least three more than they did.
The most baffling thing about the initial formation was that it seemed to betray a lack of research about the Spanish side’s strengths. Mancini must have known that Madrid would press in midfield, that Sami Khedira would push up to support Luka Modric in the hole while Xabi Alonso held. He left Yaya Toure to deal with all of this on his own.
With neither David Silva nor Samir Nasri in a position to support him, the Ivorian was totally overrun as Khedira’s movement allowed Modric vast expanses of space. Cristiano Ronaldo spotted the party and cut inside to have a slice of cake. The Portuguese tore past Vincent Kompany with total ease and should have punished him for it.
Indeed, his under-hit dink, cleared at the last moment, when Joe Hart came off his line seemed to be affected by overconfidence. Ronaldo relaxed as he poked the ball lazily over towards the far corner, certain in the knowledge that the rabble before him would soon put it on a plate again.
It was hard to disagree with his expectations, having just watched Karim Benzema’s opener. A total travesty from the entire City back line, it started with the three centre-backs. Presumably there to crowd the Frenchman out of the game, they instead all converged on the penalty spot, unwittingly inviting him to exploit massive gaps elsewhere.
As Aleksandar Kolarov did not even bother to close down the cross from the right flank, Angel di Maria’s delivery was unopposed. Maicon stood on the other side of the pitch, facing his centre-backs so certainly able to see that Benzema was not with them. But he did not bother to check where the striker might have moved to and so allowed him to sneak around the back of him without any trouble at all. Joe Hart was right to swear.
The fatal collaboration of indifference and a misunderstood defensive system, the goal should have preceded several more. A sharper touch from Khedira, forward to skin the back line shortly after, would have ensured as much.
It is obvious that, if 3-5-2 is how Mancini envisions his side playing in important games such as this, he needs to impose a much greater understanding of it. The concerns raised by Richards have clearly not been addressed.
But change back to 4-4-2 he did, as a necessity in the circumstances. Javi Garcia was introduced at half-time, precisely 45 minutes too late. Where was the Spaniard at the start of the game? Brought in this summer as a more rounded holding player to replace Nigel de Jong, Mancini needs a player like Garcia to support Toure defensively and set him free further forward, as was the case in City’s most defining moments last season.
There is simply no evidence that Mancini has any idea what his best team looks like. Gael Clichy was injured for this match but he and Kolarov tend to just draw straws for the left-back berth most weeks. Carlos Tevez combines brilliantly one week with Aguero and is then dropped for Edin Dzeko, proven to be effective off the bench, to face Madrid.
There is consistency of neither selection nor basic shape and, when you come up against elite teams such as Real Madrid or Borussia Dortmund, that kind of behaviour is punished.
The champions of England were drawn with the champions of Spain and the champions of Germany in the same group. Failure to qualify in that circumstance is forgivable – but failure to approach the challenge with a focused vision is not.
On the day when the man who won the Champions League at the first attempt was sacked, Manchester City’s owners must be wondering how long to persist with one who cannot seem to get to grips with the competition – or his team’s fundamental identity – at all.
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