City Undone by Lack of Ambition
January 24, 2011 Leave a comment
Manchester City have soared to new Premier League heights this season on the back of an impressive away record that is second only to Manchester United’s. On Saturday however, facing a resilient Villa side, the dour uni-dimensionalism of City’s style was stripped naked to its ugly core.
Roberto Mancini’s structured approach to building a top-four team has made many a dull 90 minutes seem like 180. The Mancini method is as follows: make a strong and disciplined base and decorate with flair and creativity later on. Judging by the evidence of Saturday’s game, he is still a long way from putting the cherry on top.
In many ways, the Italian’s typically conservative approach is commendable. An apparent hobby of collecting defensive midfielders doesn’t fill the heart with joy, but has ensured that City have the league’s second-meanest backline, behind only the champions, Chelsea. And the adage that a successful side is built on a solid defence will never lose relevance.
But his faith in cautiousness is at risk of shackling rather than solidifying a Manchester City squad that boasts some phenomenal attacking talent. City have been so well drilled in keeping a strong centre that they appear to have lost an important quality that should come naturally alongside resilience – a flexibility in approach. The players simply don’t appear able to revert from plan A. Suffocate teams with possession football at home; hit them on the break away.
City’s intransigence was no more apparent then against Villa. Their tactics away from Eastlands have been predicated on one vital precursor – taking the lead. City remain cautious, patient and disciplined; they rely on a spark of creativity from one of their attacking gems. Once they have scored, they sit back and exploit the gaps inevitably left when the opposition chase the game.
But what happens when things go wrong; when City fall behind? The answer, wrought painfully clear in attack after laboured attack against Villa, is that they panic. The players stick to what they know best – attacking through a defence-minded central midfield. They just do it more often, and at a more frantic and frenetic pace. Faced with a team playing them at their own game, and doing it better, City had no response. Villa combated City’s predictable attacks with relative ease.
Why criticise Mancini when he has built a team that is making a bee-line for its stated aim of Champions League football? In fact, it is justifiable to hold the Italian to account on two important points:
Firstly, the Premier League is not just a results business. Fans pay a high price to be entertained, not to undergo an endurance test. Like it or not, football is a product, and Manchester City’s brand is more Amstrad than Apple. City’s campaign has been uneventful and forgettable, as though Mancini has an aim and is satisfied with achieving it; no more and no less.
Second, in this Championship-style free-for-all of a Premier League season, in which anyone can beat anyone, Manchester City have a genuine opportunity to win the title. With an effective defensive base already in place, why not take a few chances and try to turn a few bore draws into famous wins, or at the worst, heroic defeats? City won’t find greater belief from deep inside their comfort zone.
Ultimately, a team with a clear strategy may be well drilled and effective against weak opposition, but this can also become its achilles heel. Arsenal have discovered this to their cost during five trophy-less seasons in which rival teams have learnt that the Gunners can easily be silenced by packing the midfield.
Aston Villa demonstrated that Manchester City can, similarly, be stifled, even by a weaker opposition. City’s approach, dependent on home teams attacking them, is nullified when the home side pretends that it is playing away.
Having been so bluntly exposed by a Villa team that started the weekend in the relegation zone, Man City are at risk of facing similar tactics from many other teams that lack the ability to outplay them.
Mancini has a frightening array of weapons at his disposal. Dzeko, Tevez, Silva – all possess enormous talent. It’s high time, for the sake of City, and for fans of the beautiful game, that he starts to use them.