x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Manchester City formidable and flexible in their formation

Roberto Mancini rarely makes the same mistakes twice, as was evident in yesterday's draw at Liverpool, but that does not mean that the Italian's side are tactically flawless.

Roberto Mancini is as ruthless as he is tactically astute. Sometimes he is both, evidenced by him hooking off Adam Johnson before half time of their Champions League home tie with Villarreal.

If the Italian spots a flaw in his system he wastes no time in rectifying it - as he successfully did that night by replacing Johnson with Gareth Barry to protect Manchester City against Villarreal's counter-attacking raids - or resolves to iron it out as quickly as he publicly jettisoned Carlos Tevez after his tantrum in Munich.

He rarely makes the same mistake twice. Take last season's trip to Anfield, for example.

He set City up in a classic 4-4-2 formation and witnessed an Andy Carroll-inspired Liverpool hand his side their most chastening experience of the season in a 3-0 defeat. Wind forward to the repeat fixture yesterday and City were far more fluid and flexible in terms of formation and style, lining up in a formation that oscillated between 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1 and 4-4-2.

The result? Albeit inspired by Joe Hart, City ended a run of two successive defeats on Merseyside - they lost 2-1 at Everton three weeks after the loss to Liverpool last season - with a 1-1 draw and extended their unbeaten league run to 16 matches, fuelling the belief they can win their first Premier League title without defeat.

"Who knows," James Milner said. "We'll just keep going. We won't set targets."

Paul Robinson, the combative Bolton Wanderers left-back, applauds City's general elan, yet expects it to prevent them emulating Arsene Wenger's "Invincibles", who went the entire 2003/04 season unbeaten with 26 wins and 12 draws.

"I don't think City will go the whole season unbeaten because they're so open," Robinson said.

Robinson was part of a then confident Bolton team who went toe-to-toe in a 3-2 defeat to a City side still integrating summer's recruits in the second week of the season.

"We created a lot of chances and found weak points," Robinson said. "But in attack they have so many options it's just impossible at times.

"During periods of that game you couldn't get near them because they were so fluid and sending through so many runners.

"It must have been amazing to watch but to play in it was a nightmare."

One month later City went to Fulham following 5-1 and 3-0 destructions of Tottenham Hotspur and Wigan Athletic. A Sergio Aguero brace down before the second half had properly begun, Fulham appeared to be heading the same way until Mancini attempted to padlock the victory by bringing on Pablo Zabaleta.

"I played with [Moussa] Dembele in a midfield three to pressure them in the middle of the pitch," Martin Jol, the Fulham manager, said.

"Mancini saw it and wanted to match us up there by taking David Silva and Aguero off. I know why he did that - it's worked for them in other games - but in hindsight it helped us."

The upshot was City's first dropped points of the season.

City are not without flaws. Every opposing team has been offered ample opportunity to score.

Hart has the division's second best save percentage, yet City have just five clean sheets to show from 21 competitive fixtures.

It is European competition, though, that has exposed City.

Bayern Munich's victory was not founded on any great strategic plan, but Napoli's tactics were drawn up with military precision and were built around pressing every City player in possession except Nigel de Jong and the two centre-backs, who Napoli hoped would pass forward into densely packed areas.

"We had to be focused, stay strong and have a precise idea of the game," said Walter Mazzarri, the Napoli coach.

"They would enjoy more possession because they have lots of quality and we would try to defend carefully and be ready to start the action suddenly.

"We needed to steal the ball and make things happen quickly. We needed to make the most of the spaces."

A couple of days later there was recognition from Mancini that "we can't score three or four goals in every game. In the Champions League we've conceded six goals in five games and this is too much, it's not good".

City have a shortage of reliable bodies in the centre of their defence and will lose both Kolo and Yaya Toure - "probably the best midfielder in the League," according to Jol - to African Cup of Nations duty in the New Year.

But, as Micah Richards said recently, City can "just go out and buy somebody else".