After a hard fought but ultimately satisfying victory at Norwich, a trip to the league's bottom club ensued. With the news filtering through that United had dropped two points at home to Everton, City needed to beat, and relegate Wolves to stand any chance of the title.
We setup in our familiar 4-2-3-1 shape with a few key differences. Clichy started on his usual left back role, Komps and Lescott formed the defensive triangle with Hart in net, and Zab started at right back. Barry and Yaya were preferred over the Barry/De Jong pairing of the last three games, and Silva played on the left with Nasri on the right instead of the opposite as we saw against West Brom and Norwich. Our own duo of lethal Argentinians were up front, with Aguero as the top man and Tevez behind him, dropping into midfield to form a triangle with Yaya/Barry.
The Nasri/Silva side switch made sense. As I noted in the Norwich article, we struggled down our right side last match with Zab automatically pressing the man and Silva not covering the runs of the full back, and Nasri is actually a bit more disciplined defensively than our Dave is.
It's interesting to note our pressing zones here, as it does have a bearing on the team selection. I wish that I could come up with a graphic to suit this, but alas my image skills rank right up there with Horseback Archery in the List Of Things I'm Crap At, so you'll have to bear with me.
Our wing pressing is split into three zones pretty much separated as a third of the pitch each. In the final third on the wings, we rely on Tevez on the right and Aguero on the left to link up with whomever out of Silva/Nasri is on that side and press the man. In the central third of the wing, Silva/Nasri doubles with Barry/Yaya to press whilst in our defensive third, Zab/Clichy link up with Barry/Yaya to double on their man, whilst Silva/Nasri is expected to watch for any overlaps or oncoming midfielders. Of course, the whole teams slides over as one so we leave no gaps. Theoretically. I'll talk about this more in the United Preview that I've got half done in my head but this does leave us completely out of options for cross field balls, and with Valencia basically hugging the touchline all day, I worry. But as always I digress.
For organisation fans, Aguero/Tevez cover the ball centrally in their third, the middle third is covered almost exclusively by Barry who does his own impression of having a 'bulldog like approach' (watch him in the zones, he's a madman when out of possession) and our defensive third is covered by Barry/Yaya. The rest of the guys tend to stay in their shape. Apart from Tevez, obviously, he generally presses where he wants in the central zones, all the way back into the defensive third if his fancy takes him.
With the above in mind, I can better explain what my problem was with Zab in the last game and what it was again for long periods of time in this game. Unlike Richards, Zab will not only press his man in the defensive third of the wing, but will also press his man in the middle third of the wing. This is something which I'm sure is an admirable trait but it completely knackers our shape at times and it leaves a big pile of space to run into on the overlap. I cannot work out whether he has been told to do this or not because Kompany does move over to TRY and cover his wing but whether this is Kompany being excellent or doing his job, I cannot determine. I can say for sure that Clichy, Kolarov and Richards do not press in this zone.
The Silva/Nasri swap could also be reflected in the fact that when Zab does invade another zone, Silva tends to stay as the second man pressing whereas Nasri tends to let Zab do that and watch for the overlap. With Silva on the other side this doesn't seem like a problem as much.
Anyway, the game started in a bother for the first few minutes. I still was a little annoyed that we weren't as fluid as we were at home but the initial excitement at that shape used against West Brom had subsided and I was left with the sobering reality of the Norwich game Part Two.
Despite being quite rigid positionally in the opening stages, Wolves had some fire in their bellies and wanted to out organise City whilst we tried to out move Wolves. It wasn't unlike the Chelsea-Barca game the other night but a more toned down version of such. Most teams try this tactic against us since the Sunderland and Stoke games and most fail with it. Wolves had some early joy though. They seemed to pinpoint out left flank as a possibly weak zone and set about attacking down there. Attacking is a bit strong, probing us is probably a better description. The two man pressing of Barry and Clichy easily covered their wing play and when they lost possession, Wolves weren't working hard enough.
One of the things about the intelligent movement of our players and the double man zonal pressing approach is that teams need to be highly drilled to get themselves back into shape as quickly as possible or be potentially exploited. To City's credit, we have always been very good at this but early against Wolves our transitions were a little on the slow side. Happily, Wolves' scouts must have been asleep for half a season and we were able to pass it back to Kompany or Lescott who would hold on to the ball whilst those in front of them got their heads into the game again.
The two of Barry and Yaya was a special interest to me as I wanted to see how differently their interactions and combination play was with Tevez dropping into the top of a midfield triangle instead of Aguero and this was the first opportunity to do so in a long time. It was expected that Barry would take over the De Jong role of the stopper and Yaya would resume his role as the midfield general but it seems that Mancini opted to keep Barry in the mopper upper role he played so well against West Brom and Norwich, and put Yaya in a more defensively minded role. When we were breaking out of midfield, it was Barry who was getting forward in the early stages.
I don't think Yaya particularly fits a defensive midfield role and I've read comments from Mancini expressing the same sentiment. To be honest, I don't actually see any role for him in a team with the Fluid Four and think Barry/De Jong is the better pairing for this new shape that we seem to be working on since the reintroduction of Tevez. As the game against Norwich and this match against Wolves shown, we are far better with Barry/De Jong at the back and Yaya in front of them. This however means a choice between Our Dave and Nasri, which is picking between a hugely in form player or a hugely talented player. If only we were allowed 12 on the pitch....
To their credit, Wolves were doing excellently in organising their shape and deciding when to break, when to slow the play down and when to try and exploit us. Their defensive positioning was a good match against us, and we had to work very, very hard on our off the ball movement to try and find little gaps here and there but we seemed to manage it well. It was actually a very interesting game in that regards and despite the result, Wolves players had nothing to be ashamed of. If only they'd played as hard against the other 18 teams, they probably wouldn't be in the position that they are now. They were particular adept at closing down any wide movements from Zab or Clichy by excellent tracking and grouping 3 or 4 together on the wing to stop the formation of those lovely passing triangles that we try to create.
When Wolves were in possession in that "Hardcore Barry" zone, Barry and Tevez were both working their sock, pants, underwear, gloves, hats and snoods off to regain the ball. There was a concerted effort here to regain the ball high in the centre of midfield and play an early ball. Unfortunately, we were still in the first ten minutes of the game or so which means that we were getting back into shape slower than Rik Waller and we left gaps in our midfield, happily unexploited by a nervy Wolves team.
Speaking of gaps, I was concerned in the last two games regarding the spaces that we left between the line of midfield and defence in these situations due to the defensive line not pushing up enough but those were eradicated here so well done us.
Again though, we play a 4-2-3-1 in possession which becomes a 4-4-1-1 out of possession so the need to constantly transform shape whilst pressing in your zone, looking to make off the ball runs, moving into space for a counter, tracking any oncoming defenders, etc can all become a little bit on the "tied up in knots" side, especially when Wolves are making as many unforced errors as they were.
Just like in our other away games since Tevez came back, our main attacking play was for Barry (or sometimes Kompany) to regain possession and make a quick, direct through ball to an attacking player to run on to. It's all a bit desperate at times and it must knacker Aguero but it's effective. Unfortunately for us, Aguero was starting from the left channel and awful lot in an attempt to bend his run around the organised Wolves defence so there were numerous times where he *just* missed recieving the ball. Other times when he did break through successfully, his finishing wasn't at its highest level and he failed to find the net, a fact that Mancini was absolutely not happy about on the touchline. When you buy a £38m striker, and create three one on one chances for him and he misses them all in an absolutely crucial fixture, anybody would start playing baseball with their Fruit Pastelles.
After the first 15 minutes or so, Wolves became a bit more obvious in targeting our left back position but again to little effect. They did however show another big weakness in City's defensive plan which I'm sure scouts from 'them lot' noticed. As we use a double man to press any wingers who are running, it creates a large space every time they decide to go to the byline and cut it back to the edge the box. The space that would usually be covered there is left completely open and this is the fourth or fifth game where I've seen this one move leave that gap which was happily unexploited by the Norwichs, the West Broms and the Wolves of this world. It's a real danger of ours though and we need to watch it.
We'd started to blossom into the game a little more now and the wing combination play between Clichy, Barry and Aguero was nice to see. Nasri and Silva were told to swap wings a bit more often, possibly due to Wolves attacking down the opposite flank but they were getting involved a lot too. Nasri had a lovely piece of link up play where Zab found some room on the right, gave it to the oncoming Barry, who threaded a lovely defence splitting pass through to Nasri, eventually scuffing his shot a little wide of the post. The signs were promising though and Wolves were struggling to deal with Nasri and Zab down that right wing. This was then succeeded by Zab forgetting he's actually a defender for a little while and getting beat by invading the second zone. Following this, he forgot he was an attacker and didn't break with the rest of the team, leaving his right wing spot completely open. So y'know, rough with the smooth and all that. Our shape was certainly better when we were out of possession here, despite Zab.
The breakthrough eventually came from Clichy in a nice passage of play. He picked up the ball in his left back position, beat a man and then played a Barryesque quick, direct through ball to the charging Aguero, who found his shooting boots and buried it to put City ahead. Perhaps Aguero was helped by the deliverer of the ball as they both started on the left, but either way it was a bloody good ball from Clichy, who had yet another excellent game and is having a wonderful end to the season.
To their credit, Wolves awoke after their goal and threatened a little, mainly exploiting through Zabs poor pressing and Yaya's somewhat strange passing but their chances were limited by a strong backline performance from Lescott and Kompany.
Barry was also his usual excellent self and I begin to love him more and more as every passing week goes by. He's nearly an ever present in our team and it isn't hard to see why. Barry is one of those players that you keep finding new things that you like about him, and this week it was his heading. On long goal kicks into the defensive midfield area, he seems to constantly win the header or sweep up the second ball. Ever goal kick may as well be renamed a "pass to Barry" as he usually ends up in possession within 5 seconds of it. In addition to all of his other traits which I have previously written about (and a piece on his ability to tactically foul which I want to slip in somewhere or other), it's another piece of the Gareth Barry jigsaw. A riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma. I could watch this man play for another ten years and learn something new every day. Study him folks, he's utterly brilliant and if you don't see why, you aren't looking hard enough. Gareth Barry is a masturbatory footballer. You start off not really seeing what all of the fuss is about, might find it a bit overrated and rubbish to begin with but then in one moment everything becomes clear and you think "bloody hell, I get it now, that's bloody great!". Then you can't get enough of it and obsess over doing it forever and ever in every spare moment of every spare day. Then get slapped with a restraining order and a divorce. I really need to make these analogies less personal.
Anyway, the first half came to a close with the score 1-0 to City. I thought we had an ok first half. We were wasteful up front and had problems controlling our wings mainly because we didn't know which side to put Silva. Yaya wasn't having a shining game and Tevez was a little anonymous at times but nothing fatal that made me think we'd lose the game.
As the second half began, Tevez started a little bit deeper than he had been doing in an attempt to get himself more involved in the game and it worked. The objective seemed to be to get Tevez on the ball and facing the defence with players moving in front of him and 48 minutes in, he seemed to find this scenario. This was also the point at which this writer called the De Jong on change for reasons I'll explain in a minute.
Wolves main tactic was still to try long, cross field balls whenever given the opportunity but our defensive shape was pretty good and they failed to make any meaningful impact on the game. If I was a completely picky writer, and I'm totally a completely picky writer, you could probably say that Zab was too central when the ball was on the opposite wing but only by a couple of yards. Enough space to invite a Wolves player onto him, but not enough space to actually punish him. When Zab had his next 5 minutes as an attacker, he again linked up very well with Nasri to create some good expansive play. Clichy seemed pretty bombed down on the left wing, and Silva was struggling to stamp himself onto the game at this point so much of the play was focusing between Yaya, Zab, Nasri and Tevez on that right flank.
Yaya tended to drift off a bit performance wise as the half went on. He stopped dropping into the centre back position when Kompany went to cover the right back position when Zab was on the charge, his passing was too one dimensional and in the 56th minute, he lost concentration to allow a free header which forced a great save from Hart. At 1-0 up and us needing that second goal, we need to shake things up a bit.
An hour in to the game, De Jong came on for Silva and I had to restrain myself from punching the nearest object. The commentators, fans, the whole world seemed to think that this was "a defensive substitution" and "an Italian reverting to type". If only "Mancini would go for it" like a good manager should. Rage.
This was not a defensive substitution. Let me repeat that in big letters, THIS WAS NOT A DEFENSIVE SUBSTITUTION. This substitution was almost nothing to do with Silva and was all about Yaya Toure.
As mentioned earlier, Tevez was finding that the defence were leaving him with gaps to run into in midfield. The purpose of the substitution was to put those gaps in front of Yaya Toure so that Tevez could be in front of him instead of being the one who was 20 yards deeper. Yaya wasn't playing well at defensive mid and he was struggling to read Zabs game, whilst Wolves were exploiting it more and more. To move Yaya forward required somebody to take his spot. If you left Barry there on his own, he'd have to do the double man zone pressing on both the left and the right wing while nobody was in the centre or covering the opposite path. At 1-0, that's stupid. Mancini had to pick between Tevez, Aguero, Silva and Nasri to take off. Nasri was doing excellent both in defence and attack. The whole point of the substitution was to get Yaya into the space with Tevez and Aguero in front of him to finish, so taking one of them off would have been pretty stupid. This left it down to Silva, who wasn't playing a particularly good game and was struggling to defend.
De Jong came and sat with Barry (Barry actually went to Zab's side as he's a bit better at covering the wing play which is where Wolves were attacking), Aguero went over to the right and Nasri went over to the left (well, these rotated wings at certain points just like Silva and Nasri did but this was their starting positions). De Jong would fill in the centre back role where Yaya wasn't which allowed Zab more freedom to do what he's very good at and run after starting high up, and Kompany would cover the right when he was up there and they were breaking.
This is the exact same substitution (albeit Silva instead of Nasri and Yaya instead of De Jong) that was made against Norwich, and we scored four goals in that period. Yaya in a three with Barry/De Jong, Tevez up front, Aguero starting out wide with Nasri.
Following the change there was a certain shift in our playing style. Previously we had to be very direct in the balls played up field and it often cost us possession. This is the difference between having a man start high and come back into midfield and having a guy in midfield and go up into the forward positions. It gave us more of a grounding in that central zone just in front of the centre circle where we were desperately trying to win the ball earlier in the game. It also put the ball at the feet of Yaya after Mancini noticed that they had stopped pressing as much, losing energy levels later in the game. Aguero had much more luck out on the right and he and Zab used their pace to create a whirlwind of annoyance for the left back. Nasri was ignored on the left at first to Wolves' failure and he started creating chances over there.
It wasn't all fun and games just yet although we really started to dominate those ten minutes. There was one incident where Wolves tried their cross field ball to the left back spot, found their man and Clichy pressed him. When a full back breaks shape, you expect the defensive mid to either double up on the man (which there wasn't time for) or cover the left back spot so there's no gaps to run into. De Jong completely fell asleep at one point and left a huge gap open which we were lucky to get away with unscathed. He sort of realised after that and got his head together. Maybe he was just getting into the speed of the game as he'd just come on?
73 minutes in and we had another break through. There was some excellent quick thinking by Tevez in taking a quick free kick which resulted in a wonderful ball into the box and both Nasri and Toure were queuing up to finish it. Nasri got the goal and I'm glad of it. He had a very good game yet again and topping it off with a goal is a nice bonus.
As always when we've struck the deathblow, Tevez immediately came off for Johnson. Pretty simple shape wise, Yaya stayed in the hole, Nasri went back onto the right flank, Johnson came on the left and Aguero went back up top where he'd started the game. There was no tactical reason for this substitution other than getting Tevez off and giving Johnson some game time. It did change our shape a little as Johnson provided more width on the left but Wolves were chasing the game at this point. Barry continued to be very direct in his passing, which suited Johnson more than it did Nasri on that flank.
Yaya was pressing very high up still and winning the ball back on the right flank a lot. We opened the game up more and Johnson had a decent effort saved but we couldn't find any other goals. To be honest, there was only Johnson on the pitch who looked like he really wanted another goal, the others willing to play a pretty conservative shape to see the game out at 2-0.
Corner wise during the game was actually interesting in a geeky type of way. Our defensive shape consists of two rows of three, and Clichy watching the near corner. Silva pretty much goes level to Clichy but drifts around waiting for the break to happen. He is supposed to run from the spareman slot to a more central position to catch the ball to break/guard any people outside the box but he's pretty lax in his attitude to doing this and I could see us losing a goal from a straight cross to the outside of the box at some time in the future. Aguero and Tevez stay almost completely up front as you might imagine. This is pretty standard for us when we want to be more open but defend against a team good in the air. Against Norwich, we had a different setup that you can read about at the bottom here.
The attacking corner setup was the real fun part. We have our normal setup of Nasri taking the corner, then a line of three 3-4 yards back from the penalty spot, diagonally facing the goal. Kompany sits in the middle and makes a run. This is a bit different to others. We usually have our line of three all charge to the front post, taking runners with them and leaving the header of the ball in space (where Kompany is), in the middle of the goal. This is often Lescott.
However, we used the variation here with a three of Lescott, Barry and Silva. Barry made a run to the outside of the box, Lescott made a run to the back post, Kompany was in the usual heading position but made a run to the front post and Silva ran into the space vacated by Kompany. Much more importantly though, we actually had somebody challenging the keeper! Aguero didn't really fare very well against him, but it was worth a try. Clichy and Zab were outside diagonal from the 18 yard box. And Yaya was our man to break down any counters. Carlos Tevez went front post for those keeping score.
I see the method in the madness here and Kompany's early run to the front post and Lescott to the back post is different. The standard of the balls from Nasri weren't really pin point enough to gauge the exact aim but I can imagine that we are continuing with the idea that the best corners attacking wise come when somebody at the front gets a knock on header to take it away from their keeper. Perhaps it was supposed to be Kompany heads it, Lescott finishes it? I think Villa is the only time I've seen Lescott finish it, though my mind has gone blank.
Overall, it wasn't a vintage City performance and yet again we struggled to defend our width due to some sloppy defensive positioning. We were very direct all through the game, with Barry especially trying to release Aguero first time lots. Tevez seems to be back to his human self but still created a moment of magic that put the game out of reach. Clichy had another excellent game but questions remain over where Yaya fits in a system that includes Tevez dropping backwards. I want our Derby team to be this but with De Jong for Yaya and Richards for Zab but it may even be that Mancini drops Tevez and puts Yaya in straight from the off, setting up a written script for a sub goal?
Either way, Monday will be our toughest test yet. Our biggest weakness (defending width) is United's biggest strength (attacking down wings). Their biggest weakness (unintelligent defenders) is our biggest strength (off the ball movement and fluidity). My record with predictions is as good as Michael Fish so I won't bother. I will say that if we played the same system as we did against West Brom instead of the one we did against Norwich and Wolves, I'm confident in getting a result. This is another gutcheck for Mancini.