After a week where Manchester City were convincingly defeated by both Barcelona and Liverpool, with 2-1 losses flattering the English champions on both occasions, manager Manuel Pellegrini’s tactics inevitably came under fire.
For both contests, his 4-4-2 formation was outplayed in midfield and exposed between the lines, leading to many questions about whether the Chilean has the tactical nous necessary to get results against the biggest sides.
The 4-4-2 itself isn’t necessarily a problem, although the implementation of the system is surely flawed. Atletico Madrid’s 4-4-2 is an example of the possibilities with that system, although realistically that shape is more like 4-4-2-0, with the strikers dropping back behind the opposition midfielders and keeping the side extremely compact. There’s a huge difference between that and the 4-4-2 used by Pellegrini — and, indeed, by his predecessor Roberto Mancini.
That’s the peculiar thing about Manchester City, while they’ve continually recruited new players and controversially changed managers over the last four years, their first-choice XI and formation has remained almost identical.
It’s generally been a 4-4-2 with Joe Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany, Gael Clichy or Aleksandar Kolarov, Yaya Toure, David Silva, Samir Nasri, Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero starting. That’s nine out of 11 players that have remained intact, with only a centre-back place and a central midfield slot up for grabs, and often changing from season to season. If there’s a flaw in the system, it’s a long-standing issue that isn’t entirely Pellegrini’s creation.
The 4-4-2 is the most basic footballing system around, seen as the default shape in English football. Its simplicity is a weakness in many respects, but it can also be extremely useful because players are fully aware of their responsibilities, and because it’s a perfect system for striking up partnerships.
Whereas other systems thrive because they naturally create triangles, the 4-4-2 is essentially comprised of five solid partnerships. Manchester United’s 1998-99 treble-winning side is the best example of a team of partnerships which maximised the abilities of the players. Strikers Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, for example, were good players individually, but great as a partnership.
Manchester City have struggled to build these reliable partnerships, partly because they’ve neglected the concept of the “enabler,” the player who doesn’t shine individually but allows his partner, and sometimes others, to play to their full potential. This has been a problem in almost every department of the side, and is one of the main reasons their system is so easily exposed.
Upfront is probably the closest City have come to a reliable central partnership, with Aguero and Dzeko complimenting each other nicely. Aguero is a peculiar player, more limited stylistically than often considered.
In terms of acceleration and clinical finishing, Aguero is unrivalled in world football, yet he’s also a selfish footballer who depends largely upon teammates to provide him with good service and create space for him. Aguero says he prefers playing just behind another striker, like Dzeko for example, who can make decoy runs, and Dzeko does this by coming towards the ball.
However, with Aguero darting in behind it means City don’t have a creative threat from deep without one of the wide players drifting inside. Aguero’s excellent work in the build-up to Dzeko’s equaliser at Anfield against Liverpool was actually somewhat unusual.
Even if you consider this partnership effective, and it largely is, the fact Aguero wants to play alongside a partner restricts his manager in terms of shape. Aside from playing with a midfield diamond, the only other genuine possibility is 3-4-1-2, which is why Mancini continued to experiment with that system in his final year at the club, without great success.
If it’s two banks of four behind the strikers, however, you need great discipline. The problem, though, is that the two other two key players, Toure and Silva, depend upon vacating their natural position regularly. Therefore, they need responsible covering players alongside them.
City’s wide midfielders always drifted inside under Mancini, who disliked natural wingers, and therefore, they often found themselves acting as a partnership in something of a 4-2-2-2. Silva is a brilliant playmaker, but he always drifts into central positions and rarely recovers his defensive position quickly. There was a good example at Anfield, where he stayed down feigning injury for a prolonged period. This means Samir Nasri, while a talented all-round attacking player, isn’t the ideal player to start on the opposite flanks — he’s too similar to Silva.
Here, it’s baffling that midfielder James Milner isn’t an automatic starter, especially in big games. Silva provides the brains, Milner the brawn, and the most memorable City performance of the past four years, the 6-1 win vs. Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2011, came largely because these two combined brilliantly. This is the only partnership in the City squad that actually maximises the talents of two players, and yet Milner’s still regarded as expendable.
In the centre, Toure is somewhat similar to Aguero: he needs license to constantly storm forward. However, while he’s also capable of good defensive work, he’s no box-to-box midfielder: he ambles back into position with little urgency, which means his midfield partner must be extremely intelligent positionally to prevent becoming overrun. Fernandinho, for all his qualities, isn’t really this type of player. Ironically, he is naturally a box-to-box midfielder who regains his position well, but looks uncomfortable in the deepest midfield role, struggling to stop opposition counter-attacks.
Here, City missed a trick by selling Nigel de Jong, then replacing him with a string of players in Javi Garcia, Jack Rodwell, Fernandinho, Fernando and Frank Lampard, who are all more talented in a creative sense, but lack the Dutchman’s positional discipline. He was the perfect foil for Toure, and was, in hindsight, highly underrated during his time at the club.
De Jong’s absence, peculiarly, also triggered Vincent Kompany’s demise. Most of the Belgian’s problems arise when he moves forward to shut down a player between the lines, which is essentially a knock-on effect from the lack of midfield discipline. This was rarely a problem with De Jong sitting deep.
The centre-back partnership, meanwhile, looked better when Kompany was deployed alongside composed, calm defenders like Kolo Toure, Joleon Lescott and, in particular, Matija Nastasic (currently on loan at Schalke 04). They covered well when Kompany launched into tackles — more impetuous, rash defenders like Martin Demichelis and Eliaquim Mangala have simply helped expose Kompany, and City, more frequently.
The full-back positions are less problematic. Nevertheless, Kolarov’s constant overlapping would be better in a team with a more reserved left-sided centre-back and Milner offering cover, while Zabaleta’s forward running would be better with a solid defensive midfielder ready to sweep behind.
The 4-4-2 isn’t necessarily City’s problem. If this 4-4-2 had Milner as a regular to provide balance for Silva, De Jong (or similar) to provide balance for Toure, and Nastasic to provide balance for Kompany, City would be a more formidable unit. However, this is essentially still a slightly ramshackle team of individuals, and while the quality of those players means City will continue to challenge for, and occasionally win, major honours, they aren’t — in the true sense of the word — a particularly good team.