In the wake of Mario Balotelli’s departure from Manchester City, it was reported that part of the reason was a plan to move to a 4-3-3 formation next season. Nobody doubts that Balotelli was mainly sold for disciplinary problems, but it still leaves an intriguing concept.
Firstly, the move is likely to have been influenced once again by City’s poor European performance. Mancini has already confounded supporters by attempting a move to 3-5-2 this season, failing to adhere to the old adage ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. For many, City’s first domestic championship in 44 years was a sign that the club was succeeding, yet failure in Europe was clearly a frustration to the manager. While this is admirable, there is a sense that Mancini’s tactical experiments are actually hindering the team rather than progressing it.
Secondly, manager Roberto Mancini has never favoured wingers or wide forwards, opting for a 4-3-1-2 ‘diamond’ formation at Inter Milan and preferring a narrow 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 system at Manchester City. Mancini has even opted to experiment with the aforementioned a 3-5-2 system this season to provide more width rather than fielding attacking players in wider areas.
Nevertheless a move to a 4-3-3 does have merits. The system is far more familiar with the players than a 3-5-2 ever was, with some playing it at International level – Silva, Yaya Toure – and others at former clubs – Tevez, Javi Garcia. It also shares many things in common with 4-4-2 variations so synonymous with the Premier League – essentially the wide midfielders advance and a forward retreats to create a central midfield three. Mancini’s biggest hope is surely allowing three players to remain in attacking positions whilst maintain midfield control. Most importantly the back four remains intact which should enable City to maintain their defensive solidity.
In attack, a front would allow greater freedom if not greater fluidity. City already field David Silva, and occasionally Samir Nasri, as playmakers with license to roam across the pitch in search of space, but operating from wide midfield positions gives them defensive responsibilities that may restrict their creativity. If Silva and Nasri, and forwards Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero, were fielded as wide forwards they would be less inclined to concern themselves with defensive positioning and more focused on creating goalscoring opportunities for the team. A front three would also allow greater variation in attack, with the option of a genuine winger to compliment Silva’s movement infield.
But midfield may become the more versatile area. Mancini can choose between and positive and negative midfield triangle depending on personnel and opposition. He would also be able to grant Yaya Toure more freedom. The Ivorian is generally used in a central midfield role but often moved into advanced positions when City need to attack. Toure is a universally excellent player, capable of strong tackling and patient passing in deeper positions, but also runs well with the ball and has an eye for goal. City currently have to introduce another midfielder to allow Toure the freedom to attack, but as part of a midfield three this wouldn’t be necessary.
Finally a midfield three gives City another option. Javi Garcia is a natural fit in a defensive midfield position, but could feasibly play as a centre half as he occasionally did at Benfica, dropping into defence when in possession to allow City’s full backs the freedom to attack. In a sense this would strike a balance between the 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 systems Mancini currently employs – 4-3-3 in defence, 3-4-3 in attack. This would also make City the first Premier League side to utilise this modern tactical role.
Considering how City’s players may fit into such a system is slightly futile given the nature of their transfer policy, but some existing members of the squad may have cause for concern. In defence a commitment to a back four will encourage most, although both Aleksander Kolarov and Maicon have yet to fully convince as full backs, even allowing for the possibility of Garcia as a centre half. In midfield, James Milner’s current employment as an energetic wide midfielder would be redundant, although he is capable of playing centrally. Gareth Barry has cause for concern, lacking the positional awareness to play a defensive midfield role – see games for England – and arguably offers too little to make an impression within a midfield three given that it allows for specialists. In attack, Edin Dzeko has not performed well as a lone forward and is used to playing alongside a partner, so would likely find himself back on the bench as an impact substitute.
Whether this change in strategy materialises or not, it is certainly curious to see just how much City’s European woes have affected Mancini’s plans, and also that Mancini is even planning ahead for next season. Apart from the obvious fact of a title race to contend with in the present, Mancini considered his future at the club only last season and should he finish this campaign without a trophy – a distinct possibility, excluding the Community Shield – he may find himself dismissed anyway. Nevertheless the evolution of a team is always of interest, especially one that has had such contrasting fortunes at home and abroad.