Club Focus – Manchester City – Mancini the Tinkerman

It was Roberto Mancini’s compatriot Claudio Ranieri that first received the nickname of ‘Tinkerman’, but it seems apt to apply the same moniker to the Manchester City manager in light of some of his decisions during Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Sunderland. The former Inter boss made many alterations to City’s system in the 90 minutes but it still took a wonder goal from Adam Johnson to claim the point the Blues deserved on the back of their second-half display. Judged solely on the first 45 minutes however, and it’s clear City have much work to do before guaranteeing European football next season.

Making a tactical substitution after just over half an hour of a game, as Mancini did by withdrawing Wayne Bridge and sending on Roque Santa Cruz, is a brave move in some respects, although in others it is obvious – if the manager feels another striker is needed, what is the sense in waiting until half-time – but it could be argued the manager got his tactics wrong from the start and was scrambling to put matters right. The introduction of Santa Cruz was not the only tactical change Mancini made, with Patrick Vieira replacing Micah Richards just after the hour mark, and both times Pablo Zabaleta was shifted around the field to accommodate the new arrivals. The Argentinean first moved from midfield to left-back to cover the departing Bridge and then to the opposite side of defence in place of Richards. Zabaleta, a big-hearted player, struggled to impose himself on the game and it is easy to see why as he was dragged from pillar-to-post while Mancio looked for a winning formula that never came.

This was not the first time Zabaleta has sacrificed his own performance to fit Mancini’s adjustments to City’s style of play – the former Espanyol player suffered a similar fate in the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester United, originally starting on the left of midfield before taking up a central berth shortly before half-time. Then, the Italian’s fine-tuning worked, with City taking a 2-1 lead to Old Trafford before failing in the dying minutes, but at the Stadium of Light no amount of modifications were going to breach Craig Gordon’s goal such was the form of the Scottish international. With every save the former Hearts stopper made, the more likely it looked City were going to need a moment of magic from one of their expensively-assembled line up, and it was the most recent recruit Johnson that provided it. The stunning left-footed curler Johnson unleashed may have glossed over City’s inept first-half performance but he cannot be relied upon to do that every time City find themselves a goal down thanks to their own bungling display.

Questions need to be asked at Eastlands as to why City were so poor in the initial stages. Admittedly, they were faced with a Sunderland team playing with their tails up following their 4-0 trouncing of Bolton Wanderers in midweek, but prior to that they had not won in months. The cause of City’s malaise seems to be rooted in a problem that has been highlighted constantly – too many defensive midfielders offering no support to a lone front man. In this instance it was Carlos Tevez, but even with Emmanuel Adebayor available the problem would have still reared its ugly head. Matters were worsened by the trio of ball winners – Gareth Barry, Nigel de Jong and Zabaleta – not providing their defence with the expected cover. Sunderland played well but the ease with which they attacked City’s back four was worrying, even more so considering the Black Cats were without their first-choice central midfield partnership of Lee Cattermole and Lorik Cana. Instead, Kieran Richardson and David Meyler were able to control proceedings from the centre of the park.

City were in many ways reminiscent of the Milan side so soundly beaten at Old Trafford last week – slow in possession, lacking in movement and easily unsettled by basic harrying and harassing – until the second half that is, when Mancini reminded his players they are supposed to be of Champions League quality. The players performed woefully before the break but were not aided by a system far too restrictive, one that only encouraged Sunderland forward when it became apparent City were toothless. To his credit, Mancini acknowledged there was a problem and moved to put it right early on. Finding the right mix of players will be Mancini’s greatest short-term challenge at City and we can expect more tinkering until he does.

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