Man City need more creativity from deep to conquer Europe
There was plenty of amusement earlier in the season when Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini suggested that he needed another central midfielder. A few hundred million spent, Roberto, and you need yet another player?
Yet it makes perfect sense, and partially explains why Man City have struggled in Europe this season, in comparison to their astonishing dominance in the Premier League. They have almost everything in the attacking department – finishing ability (Edin Dzeko), pace and power (Mario Balotelli), creativity (David Silva and Samir Nasri), intelligent running (James Milner), a deep-lying forward (Sergio Agüero) and tricky wing play (Adam Johnson). They also have Yaya Touré’s strength from the centre of the pitch, plus good support from full-back.
The one thing Man City lack is a top-quality deep-lying midfield playmaker – a ‘regista’, as Mancini would call them.
They have Nigel De Jong, who is one of the best in Europe at breaking up attacks, and is reliable with his short-range passing. There’s also Gareth Barry, who has enjoyed a decent opening to the season, but his form has been greeted with a mixture of praise and surprise, rather confirming the feeling that he’s not quite of the standard City need. Look at recent winners of the Champions League and they have almost always had one of the world’s best at creating play from deep – Xavi Hernández, Andrea Pirlo, Paul Scholes and Xabi Alonso spring to mind. Barry, with respect, is not in that class. No side can be a complete attacking force, but it is arguable that this type of player is even more important to a side’s attacking potential than talented wingers or strikers.
It is certainly not easy to defend against City, but sides like Everton and Napoli have shown that sitting deep and getting players goalside of the City midfield is the obvious approach to stopping them. At present, there’s no need to close down Barry and De Jong – they’re not going to open up your defence. Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany are decent on the ball but no more (although Kompany did play a superb volleyed diagonal pass for Belgium at the weekend) – so there’s little incisiveness from deep positions. Having someone like Pirlo forces the opposition midfield to come higher up the pitch to close down, therefore leaving gaps between the lines, or in behind the defence, for others to exploit.
Mancini’s surprise decision to sign Owen Hargreaves indicates his need for extra bodies in that zone, but even the most optimistic City fan won’t be expecting him to have a consistent impact on the side. Therefore, City might look to strengthen this area in January; Mancini is a fan of Roma’s Daniele De Rossi and Fiorentina’s Riccardo Montolivo – both are out of contract in the summer, and the clubs might prefer to take the cash while they still can. Importantly, neither have played in the Champions League this season, and would therefore be eligible for the knockout stages.
In the Premier League it won’t be a problem. There, the physicality of De Jong, Toure and Barry will be enough, but City might need a little more nuance if they are to triumph in their debut Champions League campaign.
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