It isn’t often the reigning Premier League Champions will base their team selection on a routine cup victory over lower-league opposition, but then Manchester City have rarely acted like reigning Champions this season. Jolean Lescott appears to fall further out of favour as Kolo Toure overtakes him in the central defensive pecking order, although Vincent Kompany’s mooted return from injury would see them both dropped to the bench. Elsewhere Roberto Mancini may finally be persuaded to persist with a forward pairing of Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez, and Gareth Barry’s poor form may see him dropped in favour of Javi Garcia.
Rafael Benitez has struggled to settle on a favoured system let alone a preferred starting XI during his few months at Chelsea. Initial attempts to withdraw the wide forwards into a 4-4-1-1 appear to have been abandoned, but Benitez will still need to decide between fielding Chelsea’s ‘three amigos’ of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar behind a lone striker or selecting Victor Moses as a natural wide option. Alternatively the Spaniard could opt for caution and deploy either Ramires or Ryan Bertrand in a wide midfield role as he has done on previous occasions. Defensively Benitez still seems unsure of his best back four, with Cesar Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanovic in contention for the right back slot, and Gary Cahill, David Luiz and John Terry options at centre back. In attack the Demba Ba/Fernando Torres debate continues.
Tactical Comparison: 4-4-2 vs 4-2-3-1
In reality the 4-2-3-1 can be little more than a modern interpretation of a 4-4-2. Both sides have a central midfield pair, two wide attackers and a player looking to operate behind a striker. The differences are subtle – City’s wide players will generally form a flat midfield four when defending, whereas Chelsea’s will apply pressure further up the pitch. The forward partnerships are also different – Tevez will drop deep from a forward position, whereas Mata will move forward from midfield. Therefore the interest lies in two areas – City’s flat midfield against their opponent’s midfield depth, and the cover afforded Chelsea’s full backs by their wide forwards.
The first point is especially interesting given the identities of City’s prospective midfielders. Barry, Garcia and Yaya Toure all play in different ways – Garcia is a natural holding player and would look to sit in front of the defence; Barry likes to operate in a central position; Toure has the energy to move between the defensive and attacking zones. The balance Mancini selects will be vital. Toure will certainly play, but Garcia’s willingness to guard his back four may be preferable to Barry’s steady distribution. Chelsea can pose City a number of problems in this area. Mata, Oscar and Hazard will all take up positions behind City’s midfield while Ramires and Lampard will look to control play from deep. City will need to get their midfield positioning right to prevent Chelsea getting space either in front or behind them.
On the flanks City should have more positional discipline. Mancini will instruct his wide midfielders to support their full backs when defending, with James Milner particularly disciplined without the ball. In contrast Hazard is liable to ignore his defensive responsibilities, and both Mata and Oscar can find themselves out of position in transitions, meaning City’s full backs may find space to attack. The battle down City’s right will be an excellent example of the tactical difference between the formations. Ashley Cole and Pablo Zabaleta are two of the league’s best full backs, but while Cole’s runs will be covered diligently by Milner, Zabaleta is likely to get past Hazard with some regularity.
Tactical Adjustments: Lack of attacking width
Both teams have sought a contemporary European approach by fielding modern playmakers in wide positions. David Silva, and when selected Samir Nasri, will roam laterally across the pitch to find space. Similarly for Chelsea whoever is nominally positioned out wide out of Hazard, Mata and Oscar will naturally move infield. Therefore two supposedly wide formations are actually narrowed considerably. As a result, both managers are likely to focus their defensive efforts on compressing the space between the lines.
This will leave the flanks as a good source of penetration. Milner is generally selected for City to offer natural width on the right, whereas Benitez will consider the benefits of playing Moses for the same purpose. Similarly both sets of full backs will be given license to get forward to offer attacking width. Despite all the central playmakers on show, whichever team can best stretch the opposition’s defence will have a great advantage.
Individual Analysis: Man City’s forward partnership
For most onlookers Aguero and Tevez have seemed City’s most obvious attacking partnership, yet Mancini has appeared reluctant to field them together on a regular basis. The Argentine pair have been City’s strongest forwards individually for over a year but have usually been selected alongside either Edin Dzeko or the now departed Mario Balotelli. It is possible Mancini views Aguero and Tevez as too similar – both are small, quick, and make intelligent runs into space. Yet Aguero looks to make runs behind defenders whereas Tevez looks for space in front of them, and their movement is complementary enough to make them an effective partnership. With both players excelling in the cup at the weekend it may result in a lengthy run in the side, with Dzeko returning to a substitute’s role.
Against Chelsea a small, mobile partnership is likely to be ideal. Chelsea have long been an extremely physical side led by the combative Terry, so the physical threat of Dzeko may be dealt with comfortably. In contrast Terry would likely struggle against the movement of Aguero and Tevez, and although Cahill and Luiz are both more mobile, either player can be dragged out of position by lateral or vertical runs.
These are two sides that have relied on the quality of their players to cover their tactical confusion. Neither side has a recognisable playing style and both may find themselves under new management next season. Nevertheless this is still 2nd against 3rd in the premier league, and the ability of the players on show cannot be ignored. Silva and Mata are arguably the league’s finest playmakers and the space afforded either is likely to be decisive. Benitez will recognise the threat of City’s full backs, and so the identity and positioning of his wide forwards will give an indication to his ambition.