The West Brom game showed us the side of City that we all enjoy watching at the Etihad. We were brave, we were fluid and we were sharp. There are numerous distinct changes to our play style home and away, but this one was even further removed from our performance at Arsenal thanks to the recalling of prodigal son Carlos Tevez.
City started extremely brightly, lining up in a valient 4-2-4 hybrid with a back 4 of Clichy, Kompany, Lescott, Richards, a holding pair of Barry and De Jong with the four attackers in Nasri, Silva, Tevez and Aguero. To be honest, the way that City play in front of the holding pair is extremely annoying for guys like me who love to put a numbering system on formations. Maybe a 4-2-1-2-1 is more accurate? Or a 4-2-1-3-0? Or a 4-2-2-1? Such is the fluidity of the system.
The important thing to remember is that during the West Brom game, City played with their two holding midfielders and one attacker in front of them to form a 3 person triangle layout. It's harder to nail this sort of system down, unlike the traditional English 4-4-2 over the road or the 4-2-3-1 that we have with a Dzeko or Balo in the team, as there are no distinctions between attacking midfielders, strikers or wingers.
The third man in the triangle was a YoYo effect depending on ball position on the field, usually with Barry in play. Mostly, when Barry was in possession on the left side of the field, Nasri would drop back to the pinnacle of the midfield triangle, then turn and face. Mostly, on the right hand side of the field, Silva would drop back to become the third man. However, both Aguero and Tevez moved towards their respective right (Tevez) and left (Aguero) wings at the time of possession to form a passing triangle on the wing between either Richards/Silva/Tevez or Clichy/Nasri/Aguero whereas the players on the opposite side pushed in to become a de-facto centre forward, winger and attacking midfielder.
This is what I believe to be "The Mancini style". He has given lectures in the past on the importance of universality in players and on creating overloads on the pitch as a means of success. The passing triangles formed on each wing create that domination, whilst the opposite wing moves into more standard positions to recieve the ball and create/finish a scoring opportunity. However, due to Balo's and Dzeko's love of playing on the last man and moving into channels to make a run rather than form a passing situation, it's something that we've rarely had this year. Tevez/Aguero/Silva/Nasri are all comfortable on the wings, in the centre on the last man, in the centre facing a defence or dropping deep to receive the ball from Barry.
One thing that we did have against West Brom that was great to see back again was the extreme pressing of the opposition when out of possession and it actually created two of our goals. For the first, Lescott pressed the opponent all the way to the left wing and eventually into a mistake, and for the fourth, Clichy pressed all the way from the left back position to the right centre mid position. Of course, in both scenarios, Barry mopped up the ball and brought it forward.
Gareth Barry gets a lot of stick from a section of City fans, who value him as physically poor and it's hard for me to see why. 77 minutes or so into the game, we lost the ball and West Brom went into a counter attacking phase, and Barry ran the entire length of the pitch to cover the centre back role when the winger eventually made the cross.
In the first 25 minutes of the game, Barry was the best player in a City shirt, mopping up any loose balls and I think that the fluid pinnacle of the midfield triangle suits him down to the ground. He wins the ball back or mops up using his excellent football intelligence then has a short pass to a creative player. Even when these creative players in front of him are exercising their movements and deft touches, Barry is constantly making himself the easy ball to get them out of trouble. In fact, I'd say that that is Barry's most important skill, making himself the easy ball and retaining our possession. In the first period of the game, he was masterful at this.
Not so lucky early on was Kaptain Kompany. With City in constant possession and West Brom unable to find a cohesive shape thanks to the fluidity, much of Kompany's job was to stand and watch Lescott win aerial battles against Long, then cover the right back slot. I'm not sure if he was a bit bored in such an intense game (pre-match in the tunnel cam shows him pumping up the players) and was desperate to get on the ball, but he tried carrying the ball 5 yards and hitting some very direct passes which lost us possession twice in the first half and once in the second half.
25 minutes in and West Brom started to get into the game a little. They seemed to switch to 4 at the back, 3 defensive midfielders and a roaming marker, and it helped them get control of City a bit. Also a problem was that Nasri went for one of his patented Kit Kat breaks, stopped coming deep on the left side of the field and allowed West Brom control of that wing. Our defence was very narrow when out of possession. Nasri wasn't dropping back, which left Barry in two minds whether to cover the left wing or try and stay centrally. Clichy couldn't then go to his man on the wing as our pressing would have suggested he was supposed to as he would have left a gap behind him. due to this, West Brom got a few balls into the box at this point, ably defended by the fantastic Lescott and the now satisfying busy Kompany. Unlike City, possibly because of our "no third man midfield" with Nasri making his brew, we struggled to break out effectively, often playing somewhat hopeful balls up field. This only lasted ten minutes or so though, as a quick "Angry Pizzeria Manager" routine from Mancini on the sidelines seemed to have reminded Nasri that he's a football player rather than a cowboy, or whatever he thinks about for those ten minutes when he disappears.
One thing I was very impressed at just past the 35 minute mark was just how wide Clichy and Richards were and just how far up the pitch right after a shaky period. I'm sure you guys will remember the wonderful ball resulting from the Tevez/Richards/Silva triangle on the right wing. Tevez played an almost blind through ball to Richards who took off his invisibility cloak and ended up been one on one with the keeper, eventually scuffing it with his left foot. During this shot, we had 8 men in the attacking third of the field. Both Barry and De Jong had pushed up so much, and it left a gap between attack/defence that I believe Hodgson should have noted.
Richards had an interesting game to be honest. He was barely a right back as he only reverts to it when we're out of possession and we constantly kept the ball. However, whilst he has improved positionally and his attacking threat is fantastic, his first touch let him down a few times during the game. Just little things, barely costing anything really. A ball that hit his foot then his chest that took a second longer to control. Things like that, not a criticism, more an observation. He was still our only real attacking threat in our dodgy period between 25 minutes and half time.
I was also impressed with how quickly we transitioned back into shape after an attacking corner now compared to earlier in the month where it took us 6 weeks and a luxury cruise liner to find our position. There's a happy middle ground here, everybody found their shape quickly and the closest defensive player (who of course was usually Chief Mopper Upper, Gareth Barry) chases the ball down. I like it. It makes sense to me and is a clear indicator of who is going right or wrong, and I always like performance indicators that are easy to spot.
In the first half we played very well, had some great movement off the ball but still had problems creating too many goal chances thanks to our ten minute lull/Nasri going to Jumanji. The second half had to be about going out, grabbing the initiative and scoring goals.
Only it wasn't really. We didn't really succeed in our gameplan, West Brom just failed in theirs. After half time, the gap mentioned earlier between the defensive midfielders and defenders increased to worrying amounts especially as we gifted them much more possession through a bit much directness and a little too little movement from the guys dropping back. If West Brom had David Silva, we would have been in trouble out of the gates, De Jong was playing Barry-lite and not Nigel De Jong which was disappointing after a strong first half. For some reason, I always like the back three of Kompany/Lescott/De Jong for safety reasons. De Jong can chase like a headless chicken whilst the two centre backs keep their shape and Barry gets the duster out 5 yards ahead of him. If Barry struggles mopping up, De Jong provides the safe option. I suppose there's an argument that we could have central defenders present this safe option for the pass but it means travelling 10 yards out of the shape and that's an impossibility under a manager as obsessed with defensive shape as Mancini. Nige will probably stay just for this reason alone, and we're a better squad with him in it so I'm happy with it.
The second goal was more to do with somebody tying the shoelaces of West Brom's centre backs together than anything else, but you have to give credit to Aguero for one of his usual "tricks". All strikers seem to have "tricks"; ways that they enjoy scoring again and again. Balo (and Messi opposite) like to come in from the left wing and hit a low, hard shot in the corner. He's probably done this exact move in five of his City goals and he tried it every game. Aguero's is to make a diagonal run across the centre backs, run way too far then make a great movement to take him momentarily onside to receive the ball. This one move actually resulted in two goals; his own goal thanks to the magnetism and player attracting qualities of Tevez, and Tevez's goal where everybody turned round all of a sudden and thought "ahhh! He's got 5 yards of space!" and closed him whilst he squared to Tevez. He's a clever player, I'm sure that Silva's goal on Aguero's debut versus Swansea had a similar feel to it.
Speaking of Tevez, his substitution baffled me somewhat. In the ten minutes around his goal, he had started to drop back and find some space where he could turn and face the entire West Brom defence then play a few overly direct but somewhat successful balls in. We created three chances from this and scored once. I can only presume a fitness issue because Nasri was doing alrightish on the left wing, they had zero threat and Tevez was starting to dictate the play. Answers on a postcard to "Mancini Hates Tevez, Golf Course, Argentina".
Either way, we were 3-0 up at the time and sailing, with the aforementioned superman pressing from Clichy providing Silva with the space to run into and perform a crowd pleasing Kinkladze-like lob over the keeper. This goal obviously came from Clichy's "never say die" attitude to running but also because of our transitional speed on the counter again. It was actually a counter attack of a counter attack where West Brom got brave and committed too many men forward who were tired from chasing shadows all night then couldn't get back. What do we call a counter of a counter? A retaliation counter?
Either way, at 4-0 up and 65ish minutes into the game, City officially gave up for the night. The tempo significantly dropped as did the pressing and off the ball fluidity. With Tevez gone and Silva/Richards/Clichy having energy/defensive problems, Aguero tended to move much more towards the wings than he did previously and the decision to bring on Dzeko was the correct one. After the 65th minute we lack any sort of centrality when attacking and were left with a City player in possession on the wing staring at a bunch of West Brom shirts. Dzeko was our man up front who would stay there and play the target man instead of running the channels but thanks to other energy related problems on the field he rarely got his chance to impress.
I very much agreed with the Silva for Zab substitution too, as Silva was running on empty as was Richards, and West Brom were gaining traction down our right wing. Zab provided Richards with a bit more protection in theory by fitting in as a defensive right sided midfielder but in practice he let himself get beaten a few times.
Either way, the game finished 4-0 in a strong showing from City but somewhat complimented by a very disorganised West Brom team. West Brom setup to stop the flow of goals and snatch some through wing play but we dominated possession so much thanks to the "fluid third man" in midfield and the passing triangles formed down the wings that they barely had chance to attack us. When they did, our defence were up to the task with special props to Lescott for not only his aerial strength but also his clever shepherding of runners and his overall positioning. He's a crab in passing, but was our best defender.
Barry the Binman was immense in his role and was certainly favoured by having a defensive player behind him in De Jong and an attacking player in front of him with the fluid four. Tevez had a good return and worked extremely well with Aguero. Nasri outside of his daydreaming linked up excellently with Barry read Aguero well for his assist, Silva wasn't quite back to his commanding best but this is more because of how supreme a player he is rather than poor performance. Richards and Clichy played as wingers the whole game and were a constant threat and I believe that Joe Hart performed a few cracking waves in an otherwise dull game for him.
Norwich will be very different from this.