Impatience has spread beyond the Man City fans, whose ire continues to be directed at the perceived tactical inflexibility and dour negativity of their manager Roberto Mancini, to the players. Mere weeks ago, we were heralding the birth of a new star. Adam Johnson had shown glimpses of undoubted potential at Middlesbrough; certainly sufficient to earn a £7 million move to Manchester City. Two goals for England and incisive performances rewarded with stunning goals against Newcastle and Juventus seemed to cement his status as one of England’s most exciting prospects.
Before a predictable performance against France, failing to lift the gloom around Wembley as he unsuccessfully attacked Eric Abidal from his inverted-winger position on the right flank, he claimed he would be willing to move away from City in search of first-team football. Johnson’s claims are surprising in their context. Barely a year ago he was part of a Middlesbrough team struggling to adapt to life in the Championship under the draconian management of Gordon Strachan. From mid-table anonymity he was given a surprising (if deserved, on the basis of a string of skilful displays from the left-wing) opportunity to test himself amongst some of the best players in the country. Particularly on the counter-attack, exploiting the space behind the full-back as he pushed up, Johnson looked up to the task.
In spite of this, he has only started five games this season. His frustrations seem to emanate from City’s recent run of poor form. One of the criticisms of Mancini has been his obstinate, defensive approach. People may stereotype this as a result of his grounding as a player and manager in Italy, yet his appointment as Internazionale manager was a result of the carefree attacking football he encouraged a penniless Lazio side to play (to relative success as well, coaching them to fourth and sixth finishes). Somehow he seems to have regressed into a defensive torpor, reluctant to start with both David Silva and Johnson, whilst playing three ostensibly defensive-minded midfielders.
Johnson’s appearances have as such become more sporadic, his influence less pronounced. The reluctance to start with him is equally as perplexing as his apparent desire to leave. Whilst not the best crosser of the ball, few match his trickery and coolness in front of goal. He and Silva are intelligent, flexible enough footballers to swap flanks, as such offsetting the rigidity which has so frustrated Manchester City fans in recent weeks. Additionally it would allow James Milner a license to drive forward from centre-midfield, the position where he played the best football of his career at Aston Villa last season.
Roberto Mancini can find a solution to Johnson’s frustrations and Manchester City’s mini rut in one fell swoop; by relieving himself of his tactical inhibitions and playing both Silva and Johnson alongside the irrepressible Tevez. A bolder City will be a more successful, and less irritated City. They stand at the precipice of glory. Making a bold decision to start Johnson and to place the emphasis on attack might just speed up the process.