Why Manchester City can’t get it right in Europe
Two seasons in the Champions League, five away group games played and Manchester City have won only one; against Villarreal, who went on to be relegated that year. So what is the problem? Is it, as Roberto Mancini insisted on Monday, just a lack of experience.
Where their lack of European pedigree certainly has hurt them is in the draw. With a low coefficient they have been placed in tough groups both last season – with Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal – and this – with Real Madrid, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund.
And perhaps it is the case that it takes time to learn how to balance the twin demands of the league at a weekend and regular high-level competition in midweek.
CRUMBLING ON THE CONTINENT
MANCINI’S RECORD IN EUROPE
2002-03: UEFA CUP
2003-04: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2004-05: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2005-06: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2006-07: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2007-08: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE QUARTERS
2010-11: EUROPA LEAGUE
2011-12: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
2011-12: EUROPA LEAGUE
But by far the bigger issue seems to concern Mancini. Last season’s group-stage exit was perhaps unfortunate; 10 points would usually be enough to progress. But in four seasons with Inter, Mancini’s side went out in the quarter-finals twice and in the last 16 twice. The issue is perhaps less that the Italian struggles with the different style of European opponents than that the quality of the Champions League exposes flaws that domestic football doesn’t.
And that, unfortunately for Mancini, would seem to enhance the claims that, for all his success – four title wins in six years – he is a lucky coach rather than a great one; after all, his three Scudetti came in a Serie A severely weakened by the aftermath of the Calciopoli scandal, while his Premier League title was at least in part won because of an uncharacteristic collapse by Manchester United.
The real problem for City seems to be that Mancini is aware of the doubts about him and seems to be going through a phase of trying to prove himself, overcomplicating things as though to make clear that he is the genius, he is the one who deserves the credit for City’s success. The change of shape against Real Madrid, for instance, was baffling.
In the second half, having pulled David Silva (later replaced by Edin Dzeko) infield with the switch to 3-5-1-1, Marcelo was given freedom to charge forward down the left, meaning that the right-back – initially Maicon but then Pablo Zabaleta – was left isolated to face not only Cristiano Ronaldo but also the marauding Brazilian.
Perhaps the idea was that Vincent Kompany, shuffling across from right-sided centre-back, should offer support, but that didn’t happen. The result was Marcelo having time to line up the shot that brought the first equaliser – the third such effort that he had had in quick succession – and that Ronaldo was again and again able to get a run at the full-back, which was what brought Madrid’s third goal.
Did Madrid present City with a particularly different challenge to that they face in the Premier League? Not really: Plenty of Premier League sides set up in a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid. Similarly, the 4-3-3 played by Dortmund and Ajax is common enough, even if their pressing is perhaps more ferocious than is common in the Premier League.
Champions League teams don’t do things that differently to sides near the top of the Premier League; it’s just that they do them better and more consistently – or at least the teams that City have been unfortunate enough to draw do – and that exposes the English champions’ vulnerabilities. In the Premier League a moment of individual brilliance, or an error from an opponent, can cover for an indifferent team display.
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City can get away with allowing the average Premier League winger to isolate a full-back in a way that they can’t with Cristiano Ronaldo or Marco Reus (or even, as it turned out, Ryan Babel). The tendency of their wide men to stay high isn’t an issue domestically because their midfield can be relied upon to dominate possession; the higher the level – as Chelsea have also found this season – the greater the danger when the full-back is left isolated.
Playing a back three is a way round that, using wing-backs to engage the opposing winger higher up the pitch, but no tactical tweak will work unless the players are comfortable with it.
Micah Richards admitted after the 3-1 defeat to Ajax that the switching to three at the back confused him, which is a particular worry given that he seems ideally suited to play as the right of three central defenders. Perhaps it is the case that English players are less used to mid-game switches of tactics than Italians and others but that’s for Mancini to come to terms with: he either has to coach the players into being flexible or keep things simpler; he can’t simply demand that they do something they find difficult.
The real worry for City is that the flaws are deep-rooted and may start to show not just abroad but at home. The sale of Nigel de Jong, the sidelining of Joleon Lescott and the dabbles with a back three all suggest a side trying to switch to a more possession-based game, Mancini perhaps following the general trend or – more intriguingly – looking to head off rumours that Pep Guardiola is being lined up as coach by adopting a style based on Barcelona’s. Whatever the reason, it isn’t working.