Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Stoke City booked a third date with Tony Pulis’ side in a fortnight, but that a replay was needed at all underlines a problem Manchester City have suffered from all season and Roberto Mancini has so far failed to correct.
After a strong start to the weekend’s FA Cup tie, once City took the lead it was the visitors who responded best and took the initiative. While a team falling behind pushing to regain parity may be expected, City crumbled and allowed Stoke to take the game to them. Pulis’ side rarely need a second invitation to pile on the pressure and there was something inevitable about their 57th minute equaliser. It was not just that Ricardo Fuller’s goal came from a Rory Delap throw-in, but rather the sloppy defending that allowed the Jamaican to reach the ball unchallenged.
City’s defensive woes stretch back to Mark Hughes’ time as manager earlier this season, when too often the defence was left exposed by players over committing in attack, surging forward at inopportune moments and leaving their teammates vulnerable on the break. Under Mancini, the reverse has been the problem – an overly negative outlook, welcoming the opposition forward in the hope of containing them. This is not a symptom of Mancini being an Italian manager, as some blinkered pundits claim, as if there has never been a defensive-minded coach from anywhere other than the boot-shaped peninsula, but rather his own footballing methodology clashing with the English style. There is a time and a place for sitting deep and holding two banks of four in front of the opposition, but at home to Stoke with a slender advantage and plenty of time remaining is not it.
The experiment of three defensive midfielders was at least curtailed on Saturday with the inclusion of Stephen Ireland and Shaun Wright-Phillips, although Patrick Vieira did replace Ireland after 70 minutes. Ireland has been a vocal critic of Hughes lately, blaming the Welshman for the dip in form that has seen last year’s City Player of the Year’s stock tumble dramatically. A year ago, the No.7 was fast becoming one of the Premier League’s most dangerous midfielders, but now his game appears to lack confidence, leaving Gareth Barry, Nigel de Jong and Vieira as better bets in the middle of the park. That trio lacks forward power, with each more comfortable defending than attacking, but until Ireland regains his previous form the options available to Mancio are slim. The former Inter Milan boss recognised this and tried to add to his midfield further in January, but McDonald Mariga’s inability to gain a work permit left City light in this key area.
With his cadre of ball winners, Mancini has struggled to find support for Emmanuel Adebayor, a problem accentuated on Saturday by the absence of Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy. The lack of support for the Togo captain leads to moves breaking down and City facing further onslaught, and given the insecurities in the heart of defence on show this year, that is a recipe for disaster. Kolo Toure appears to have left his defensive wisdom in North London while Joleon Lescott has veered from vital blocks, interceptions and goal line clearances to woeful lapses in concentration. Neither full-back position has been settled either, with Pablo Zabaleta too accustomed to ball-watching and Wayne Bridge inconsistent pre-injury. Vincent Kompany looked assured in his time at centre-back, but he is currently suffering from a groin strain.
There are still reasons to be cheerful, especially Wright-Phillips’ return to the side that saw him torture the Stoke full-back, while Adam Johnson has made the step up to Premier League football seamlessly. It is early days for the young winger, but if Wright-Phillips can retain fitness and Johnson continues to stand up to the rigours of top flight football so well, Mancini will have the basis for the continued evolution of his City side. Roque Santa Cruz’s return could be the answer to Adebayor’s isolation problem, in turn relieving some of the pressure on City’s defence and allowing whichever midfield selection Mancini makes to play their natural game.
Tonight’s meeting with Stoke will allow Mancini to put right some of the errors from the weekend, primarily reminding somebody to mark Fuller when Delap is winding up from the sidelines. But more than that, City need to show they can defend and attack in equal measure with the style expected from a top-four team. Stoke will not change much from Saturday but will City have learnt their lesson?
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