After the elation of the West Brom result, a trip to a tough Norwich side with a dodgy record and the pressure of a title race looked like a potential banana skin. On the road, we have been more than average and there were question marks over the cautiousness of the management and a confusion over why we could be so dominant at home whilst been so passive away.
As mentioned in the West Brom review, City played with the Fluid Four up top, with each of them dropping in to create a midfield triangle depending on where the ball was on the pitch. Barry was Chief Mopper Upper, constantly winning second balls and positioning himself for the easy pass, and Richards/Clichy kept the apparent width in the 4-2-4 hybrid formation.
Upon the announcement of the teamsheet, I was very pleased. The only change was Zabaleta for the Richards, who quite obviously tired in the West Brom game. Requiring him to play three days later was certainly overkill. This is an important point and a stick that is used to beat the manager often; the rotation of the fullbacks. In our present system, the full backs, or more accurately wing backs, travel the whole length of the field almost constantly whilst still maintaining the high pressing game that is required of the rest of the team. Just as importantly as distance is the explosive speed that they are expected to produce at times, allowing us not only to break away quickly but also to support any overloads coming from the four up front.
It is an incredibly physically demanding role and in the system as it is, I can't see this rotation ever changing no matter who we have to bring on. As it turned out, Richards was the one who started skipping a beat late on against West Brom whereas Clichy kept his energy levels quite high, and Zab was brought on to help him defend late in the game. To be fair, against West Brom Richards was ridiculous in how often he got up the pitch and transitioned back into his defensive role. He worked incredibly hard and Norwich away was a step too far, especially due to their strength and pace on the wings. More on that later.
With that said, we started off the game looking like a team who had played a high tempo game a few days earlier. Norwich flew out of the blocks in the first 5 minutes, made buoyant by that first rush of crowd noise and the speed in which we transitioned between formations in and out of possession was slower than you'd expect.
Formation wise, I was extremely disappointed. I wanted to see a repeat of the Fluid Four that I raved so much about in the West Brom review. I felt that we're a better team than Norwich but understand that another high tempo game such as this, especially without the absolute key of Richards may have been expecting too much this late into a season.
The fluidity I'd admired so much in that midfield triangle was left behind, with a pretty standard 4-2-3-1 shape replacing it. Nasri and Silva covered the left and right wings respectively with Aguero pushing up against the last man and Tevez sat behind him, dropping back into midfield when needed. Barry and De Jong were the midfield two, and the back line of Clichy, Komps, Lescott and Zab was expected.
Not only was the fluidity gone out of our midfield diamond but we struggled early on again with the depth of our defensive line and the lack of communication/awareness between the full backs. To create the overloads and number domination that Mancini's teams enjoy when attacking, both of the full backs need to push up at the same time. Having a single one of them go and the other faithfully jog up is simply not good enough. The point is not only to provide a wide outlet for a pass but also to drag a full back towards them, creating space for an attacker to run into between them and the centre back.
Good examples of this would be the first Aguero and Tevez goals versus West Brom. The problem when only one goes forward, is that it allows a defensive unit to essentially "slide across". Nobody has to worry about the opposite wing space. If they ignore it when we have Richards stood there, he finds himself in 15 yards of space and can punish. Many teams have tried to combat this by allowing the fullbacks to go wide and slotting midfielders into the spaces but how quickly they can do this has often given one of our attackers the time they need to make the run, panic a defender into tracking them and creating more space. Aguero is the master of timing these runs so that the centre back and the guy dropping into the space don't have time to work out who is covering what.
Also, as the fullbacks weren't getting forward in the same manner, those lovely passing triangles that I described midweek between the fullback, midfielder and striker just didn't develop. To be honest, it didn't fit the system either way.
Even without the two full backs flying forward, we were much more rigid positionally all over the pitch. Aguero pretty much hung on the last defender, and Tevez became the third midfielder whilst Nasri and Silva were in that annoying "not-quite-wide, not-quite-central" space on the left and right mainly tracking runs from a very quick duo of fullbacks Norwich possessed. The name of the game very early on was rigid and direct.
Speaking of direct, Barry did get very direct in his passing in the first ten minutes, much more than we usually see from him. Barry is a world class Mopper Upper but because of the aforementioned depth of the defensive line it just didn't happen for him pretty much the whole game. With a higher defensive line, your centre backs (Lescott usually) can take a few steps forward to win a high central ball, whilst somebody like Barry can "mop up" the ball then use his intelligence to either pass it short to keep possession or try to release an attacking player. As we were deep, it was Barry or De Jong winning those headers and when the ball dropped in front of them, it went straight into Norwich possession or to a City defender with nowhere to go.
In situations where we don't win that drop of a ball but quickly regain possession (for example when Tevez came deep and used his body strength to piss the midfielder off enough that we nicked it), a quick pass to Silva/Nasri/Aguero is probably a good idea, so maybe I'm been harsh calling him too direct early on. And his backheel flick through to Aguero was remarkably clever and skillful from a player not usually associated with this deftness of touch.
As the game moved on, our energy levels seemed to heighten. Our pressing in the final third became very, very good and I thought that maybe our West Brom system was coming back. The workrate of Tevez and Silva in closing down defenders in possession was particularly pleasing but even Nasri did his bit. We do seem to have a mission of never allowing an opposition defence a second on the ball.
With his new found energy levels, Tevez picked up the ball and charged into the Norwich box with a penetrating run, got kicked then to the disbelief of everybody somehow managed to get booked for diving. I've looked at this a few times and the only thing that I can think of, is that the ref saw that Tevez was in somewhat of a blind alley so presumed he went down. This referee has never seen Carlos Tevez play; he scores in blind alleys more than Wayne Rooney armed with a bottle of gin and a free bus pass. Either way, it was a ridiculous decision that was particularly annoying when you look at Ashley Young getting penalties for practising skydiving in the last two weeks.
Either way, we soon found ourselves 1-0 up somewhat against the run of play, when good pressing from Silva allowed Tevez to carry the ball a few yards and smack it out of nowhere into the top corner. No matter what your thoughts on our golf fancying chum, he is one of those players on this planet who can produce a moment of astonishing brilliance that grabs you a goal and this was one of them. Norwich gave him 5 yards of space, he punished them with a shot that swerved so much that Hawking fell out of his chair in shock. Remember when your mate told you that he'd just got a brand new footy and you went round expecting a Mitre or whatever only to be greeted by one of those plastic things that cost a quid? It's like Tevez smashed one of them, on a windy day. It bent in about four directions and the keeper looked like Mr Tickle as it sailed past him.
The goal unsettled Norwich a bit further and in the immediate aftermath they became very defensive, which suited City down to the ground. Their defensive midfielders started to become more like centre backs filling in to the defensive line. Again though, this was frustrating because Zab and Clichy weren't timing their forward runs in unison and we ran out of options in possession.
As Norwich overpressed up top, during a counter attack they allowed Nasri to pick up the ball deep and carry it a good ten yards forward and give to Aguero. Like Tevez's, there's not much you can pin this goal on. This goal wasn't particularly scored because our excellent shape released Nasri into space, or because our defenders did a great job or even because Norwich did a bad job. This goal was scored because Sergio Aguero is a very, very good player who created his own space then performed a pinpoint shot; sometimes it really is that simple.
In between the second goal and halftime began the period of most annoying football that I've seen from City for a long time. I don't think it's too dramatic to say that we pretty much fell apart for ten minutes; our shape just seemed to disappear in front of our eyes. I watched this period two or three times to make sure that I wasn't assigning blame unfairly here but the evidence seemed to point to it.
For the second game in a row, Nasri completely fell asleep for ten minutes just before half time. I half heartedly joked about this in my last review, about whether he was dreaming about being a cowboy or something, as it didn't really affect our game THAT much. However, in this game it forced us to create a very sticky 4-4-2 shape that pretty much missed a left midfielder. Now, I'm obviously aware that City play a 4-2-3-1 in possession which automatically lends itself to a 4-4-2 when out of possession but this was something entirely different. Nasri just didn't seem to know where he was supposed to be; numerous times he drifted into the centre because Barry was busting a gut to track an oncoming right back, which left him as our furthest player back.When Samir Nasri is your deepest outfield player and it isn't a counter attack, you know your shape has gone wrong.
At first I thought that we'd switched to a defensive 4-4-2 shape and that Barry had just gone to the left to try and deal with a particular danger that Norwich created, but during set pieces and even on goal kicks and the like, Barry was still a central player and Nasri was on the left. Essentially, Barry was playing two roles whilst Nasri sort of skipped around thinking of ponies or whatever.
Another consequence of this is that during counters, Barry became almost a box to box midfielder, not unlike what you'd expect of a James Milner, constantly pressing forward. At one stage, he had to get up to support Aguero and Clichy on the left, then charge all the way back to support De Jong, passing Nasri twice. Our shape and domination disappeared because of one person.
Nasri is an immense player who is supremely talented and his contributions were vital to this game and other games. However, seemingly for no reason, he goes missing for ten minutes a game and leaves others to clean up his mess as well as do their own job. I have no idea why but I hope he bought Barry a drink or two afterwards.
So, we finished the first half with a bit of a damp squib and I don't think it's too harsh to say that despite being 2-0 up, we weren't dominating the game as we were against the Baggies. Even good ol' Buzzer could see that maybe the scoreline was a bit flattering to us and our goals were moments of magic rather than well worked pieces of play. We weren't playing badly really, but we couldn't get the game by the scruff of the neck in the same manner.
The second half started pretty well. We were back into our normal shape, Nasri seemed to be back on planet Earth and was back on his left side. Norwich yet again seemed to get out of the blocks a bit more than we did but we weren't as crazy-go-nuts all over the place as we were leading up to the break. However, with both teams pushing and Norwich winning most possessional battles, we did start to move under the kosh as the half started to get up to full speed.
The Norwich goal was really a problem that had occurred all game, but something that I want to mention later on. The result of which, was that Kompany and De Jong both went towards the same guy, and when De Jong realised that the other man had been passed to him, it was already too late and the ball was in the back of the net. Yes, Hart could have done better with his punch and yes, he could have got back into "starting position" much quicker but these seems to be symptoms rather than the cause. As I say, I'll get to that later on.
Our midfield was suffering after the Norwich goal and in my view, changes needed to be made instantly. They had their tails up, they had possession and were exploiting a severe weakness of ours. In those situations, they were simply going to score another goal unless we did something about it.
Barry was never moving to create that safe pass when we were in possession, Silva and Nasri were losing battles with their full backs and the time it took Tevez to travel back into midfield was leaving them with both time and space in the centre of the park, whilst facing our goal and having guys moving in front of them. A dangerous combination indeed.
The eventual change was Yaya for Nasri. Sometimes Mancini makes baffling substitutions; ones that seemingly have no rhyme or reason to them. He is criticised for not changing a game or whatever. Here, he completely changed the game. Yaya Toure had a major hand in every single goal we scored after this and completely bossed the midfield. The fact that we were playing the shape in which he flourishes the most probably had something to do with it. I wonder where he would start in the Fluid Four formation used at home, if he even would? He doesn't possess Barry's capability to mop up but could play the De Jong role of covering the fullback space and generally terrorising attacking midfielders. He couldn't play further forward in, say, the Nasri spot unless he somehow became much smarter in his off the ball movement.
Either way, with Yaya on for the ineffective though not quite as lost Nasri, Aguero moved over to the left, Tevez moved up top and Yaya sat in behind him though much deeper than Tevez was playing. Where Tevez started high and charged into midfield, Yaya was the opposite. Barry still covered that left wing spot with Clichy but was much more comfortable to see Yaya dropping in to his place and keeping the shape. Aguero is actually a pretty hard worker when it comes to tracking full backs runs and it also gave him a chance to get on the ball earlier on the left and run at the defence with his head up, which he obviously enjoys.
Our third goal came from Yaya solving one of our earlier problems. Our defensive mids were winning the ball in the air leaving nobody really fighting for the second ball. Moving Yaya into a midfield role allowed a bit more height into there but also gave a spare man to actually take possession after we won a header on a high central ball. He won the header, and we moved the ball forward eventually ending up with Yaya taking a shot that Ruddy will be disappointed in his handling of, letting Tevez somehow outjump a guy eight feet taller than him and restore the advantage.
Our fourth goal was almost immediate and again Yaya had a big role. Zab won a header in the right back position which Yaya mopped up and drove forward with. He gave the ball to Aguero who banged it in the net leaving both him and Tevez fighting for the hattrick. If I didn't know better, I'd say he was trying to outdo Tevez performance wise which is as exciting as an invitation to a naked True Blood cast reunion, with complimentary whipped cream and cherries.
At 4-1 and the game seemingly over, Mancini brought on Johnson for Silva. Silva was fighting a losing battle defensively on the right wing and was becoming less effective going forward so it made sense. He's recently had a knock then played two games back to back and we have some tough games coming up. Can't hurt for AJ to stick himself in the limelight, or shop window depending on your views of his future career.
At this point, Norwich were already mentally gone. We had the run of the game, we were dominant in possession and chance creation, we were much more fluid and much more likely to add to our tally. The fifth goal, and his hattrick came from a long ball hit forward and Tevez chasing on to it, then rounding the keeper. As I say, Norwich heads had dropped and they knew that a drubbing was coming despite their earlier promise. If you watch the replay of this, you can actually see the moment when one Norwich defender gives up entirely; Tevez just rounded the keeper by slotting it to the side and the defender stopped jogging, making no effort at all to get to the line. At 1-1, he would have charged to that line like his life depended on it.
With his hattrick sealed, Tevez came off for Richards and high fives all around. Sub made perfect sense which I'll talk about in a moment, with Richards slotting into the right back position and Zab moving forward to the right mid role, then AJ moving to the left and Aguero up front. A 4-5-1 like shape.
The sixth goal came from Yaya again picking up the ball in midfield then finding a pass over to Aguero, who put in a nice cross and a remarkable piece of control from Clichy allowed Johnson to slot it home and complete the walkover.
This game report wouldn't have been complete however without speaking about Zab. I try to write these reports chronologically and talk about positives or negatives as the game develops over 90 minutes. However, I had to save Zab until the very end otherwise I'd be writing about him in almost every paragraph.
Zab had a poor game. I'm not sure if he was asked to do this or not, but he almost constantly charged towards a winger in possession and dove into a tackle, often costing himself. I'm not sure that him and Silva were effectively working together on the wing as Zab came very central at times as he charged people down and Silva looked sort of confused about whether he should be tucking in or not. To describe it another way, he seemed to be charging into Silva's man instead of worrying about his own, which was especially important against Norwich as their winger and especially their left back, Drury who I thought was excellent, were doubling up down our wings. I actually lost count of the amount of times he got done with a simple overlap because he picked the wrong man, or went much too tight on his man.
Attacking wise, he's definitely no Richards and I still have this lingering doubt about whether he really "fits" that position. Richards runs from very deep in explosive speed, then turns round and charges back. Zab seemed to start from a higher position in the wing and rely on a shorter burst of pace which I don't think fits as if he has to cancel his run he is way out of position, leaving Kompany to drop into right back and De Jong to cover the centre. One of the great things about Richards is the surprise element of him arriving late and his ability to carry the ball 10 yards with him, neither of which Zab did against Norwich. He was far too eager to dive in and absolutely did not want to show the winger down the line or make a block. My problem with this was that when he charged out, he often charged 15 yards and broke the shape then left a massive hole behind him. If you watch the tape, Kompany went mad at him two or three times in the game. I know Richards had to be saved but I honestly thought that the amount of joy Norwich were getting down our right channel between the befuzzlement of Silva and the complete tongue out, dribbling madness of Zabaleta that he'd have to make the change. He did make it, though much later than I expected.
I don't know, maybe Mancini told Zab to attack Wilbraham like the Scots charging the English in Braveheart but I see no rhyme or reason to it. As much as I was frustrated at Nasri, I was actually laughing at Zab. He left huge spaces, he can't pick his runs and he isn't mobile enough to play his position but this man is literally insane. He shouldn't be a footballer, he should be a Viking or at least Glaswegian. In my mind, I imagine him looking at the left winger and shouting "see you Jimmy!" then charging at him. He reminds me of old City a bit in as much as he was shit but in a funny way. Whether or not you find it palatable now, I'll leave to you.
Zab aside, I thought Hart's distribution was disappointing. Often he can play a short pass but instead plays a long ball that loses possession. I know why, better to be safe than sorry and all that but it's a personal bug bear.
For the geeks amongst you, I thought our corners were pretty standard. Attacking wise was a mixture of everybody charging to the front post leaving the header (Lescott) in the centre free and a small attacker (Aguero) behind him in case it drops back. Norwich just put a man on the back post and we didn't really get a good flick on from the guys charging towards the front post so it didn't really work. We changed to our other standard routine where we line up in two banks and the outside lot move front/back/centre leaving the header on his own in front of goal, but we never put anybody challenging to goalkeeper with this so it never works, Villa aside.
Defensively, we did the same "full back next to defensive mid with other mid a bit more inside" that we tend to do a lot. On a left corner, we get our front man (sometimes a Balotelli) to go extreme front, Clichy goes front, Barry a bit out from him, Nasri a bit out from him. Right corner is Zab front, De Jong next, Silva next. Big guys in the centre winning the header, guy on the edge of the box waiting for break, striker up a bit. Nobody on the posts which I always umm and ahh a bit, and the style makes Hart come for it a lot but there we are. Nothing revolutionary.
It's a hard game to sum up really as we weren't totally dominant in our play until Yaya came on to give us a bit more strength in midfield and the wing play that passed Zab/Silva by was a real worry at times. We seemed to lack a lot of off the ball movement, in particularly when we had possession people weren't moving towards the ball holder to receive, rather were moving away from them into space which made us quite direct at times. The two Argentines up front were wonderful and their 2 goals before half time saved our nerves and awful lot. The third at right back had one of his "off his head" games where he thought he was playing centre mid and I struggle to see why he was kept on when Norwich were getting so much joy from that position, and indeed their goal came from Zab/Silva not really getting their man correctly. I imagine fitness levels, and Richards only came on late because he'd had enough of Zab there, hoping that two defensive right backs might neutralise their threat despite been 4 up at the time. Nasri was equally frustrating yet brilliant and his alien abduction episodes hurt us more away than at home.
My first reaction to the game was that we played badly but after watching the game again and really getting down into it, I don't think we did. I thought we actually played very well as a team but had a few points that stuck out as worrying. Whilst the 6-1 scoreline may suggest it, this wasn't a demolition and with 20 minutes to go, the wing play from Norwich was starting to worry me in spades. However, the Yaya change gave us a new vitality and Norwich collapsed as the game went on.
Nice win for us both in terms of the table and for breaking that mental block of "away form". With Wolves away up next, it is possible that we could see another drubbing. If only Mancini would play his Fluid Four away instead of the rigid unsuited system that we played early on, we could have been even more dominant. With the Tevez/Aguero/Nasri/Silva and Barry/De Jong he's trying to have his cake and eat it. He wants the creativity of the four like at home, yet puts them in a system that doesn't work with that creativity. He either has to start Yaya in this rigid system to allow the service from midfield to the forwards to come, or he has to play the game that allows the formation of the wide passing triangles and the guys rotating to drop back into the third midfield slot. Wolves will be interesting for this alone. Without Yaya in the team, our creative players were either getting on the ball too deep or pretty much out of the game. In a game of stick or twist, we stwucksted but figured it out with enough time to go out and change the game, eventually sticking 6 past them.
If he goes one way or the other, we could see a cricket score at Wolves. If he still tries to mix n match, we could be in for a frustrating afternoon.