Mancini marches forward after sorting out defence
Tomorrow, on the eve of the two-year anniversary of his appointment, Roberto Mancini's Manchester City host Arsenal. After 24 months of convulsions, crises and at least occasional triumphs, City now certainly bear Mancini's stamp. Not only are the players now meaningfully his, but, as of this season, they finally play a style of football befitting their cost.
All the criticism that Mancini had to face for his three defensive midfielders, his straight-laced full-backs, his clean-sheet fetishism, his lack of ambition, his half-a-billion-pound team playing frugal football, has been washed away this year by a tide of goals. City have scored 49 so far in 15 league games, including remarkable 5-1 and 6-1 wins at White Hart Lane and Old Trafford respectively.
That unusual path, from austerity to extravagance, owes itself to the situation Mancini inherited on December 19, 2009. Before he could teach City to attack, he had to educate them to defend. Mark Hughes' team were unapologetically cavalier and conceded more goals than any serious side could expect to do.
The first full season after the Abu Dhabi takeover was 2009-10 and after a summer outlay of £120m on players, including Carlos Tevez and Emmanuel Adebayor, expectations were high. Hughes lined City up in a bold 4-2-4, with the quick and direct Craig Bellamy and Shaun Wright-Phillips either side of Tevez and Adebayor. It certainly made for exciting football. City beat Arsenal 4-2 and, eight days later, lost 4-3 to Manchester United. But they could not hold onto a lead and squandered advantages in draws against Fulham, Burnley, Liverpool and Hull City.
Vincent Kompany, who only made his place at centre-back secure that winter, said in Mancini's first month that the emphasis was not so much on defending as tactical discipline.
It was clear from the performances that order was Mancini's first priority. No longer did the full-backs and wingers attack at will, no longer were the centre-backs and midfielders left stranded.
Mancini tended to play 4-5-1, leaving Carlos Tevez up front on his own who, fortunately for Mancini, did not need a strike partner to help him get goals. Having such a productive striker was perfect for the Italian, as it allowed his team to play with even more solidity and even less fluidity, than before.
The numbers do vindicate his approach: in the 22 league games Mancini oversaw that season, City conceded 21 goals, an average of 0.95 per game, better than Hughes' 1.6.
Not everyone was impressed by Mancini's caution, though. Colin Bell, City's greatest-ever player, expressed his disappointment with the defensive approach and suggested it ran counter to the club's finest traditions.
"It frustrates me," Bell sighed. "I don't know if it's because he's a foreign manager and it's the system he has played for years. Under Malcolm Allison and Joe Mercer we never laid out our stall for a draw."
After a 0-0 draw at Arsenal, Mancini admitted: "I prefer one point and being booed than no points and being applauded off the pitch."
Mancini's approach largely delivered. City had the joint-best defensive record in the league last season, conceding just 33 goals, 0.87 goals per game. The arrival of Silva and Yaya Toure added quality and penetration to midfield, though the team was still less prolific than it might have been.
It was enough, though, for City to finish in third place, qualifying for the Champions League for the first time, and to win the FA Cup, their first major trophy since 1976. And, with the defence now secure and the midfield authoritative, Mancini was free to address the attack
Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy all arrived and nearly as importantly, Mancini felt enabled to drop Nigel De Jong. A master of destruction, but not imaginative, the Dutchman is no longer the keystone of City's defensive structure. Rather, Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure are trusted to cover defensively, while Silva and either James Milner or Nasri play outside them.
The transformation in styles has been as clear as that between a caterpillar and a butterfly. Even given a recent slow-down, City's 49 goals from 15 league games is 10 clear of the previous record, set 10 years ago by United.
In terms of ambition, swagger and relentless commitment to attacking, they are unrecognisable from how Mancini started. It has taken two years, and of course hundreds of millions of pounds, but Mancini now has City where he wants them. (© Independent News Service)