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Roberto Mancini facing key defensive questions as Manchester City falter
How times change. Roberto Mancini was criticised the season before last for his pragmatic, defensive approach to the game. Now his Manchester City side seem bereft of solidity at the back. Vincent Kompany, a towering influence last season, is seemingly unable to hold together a leaky backline. And Mancini has been switching between Joleon Lescott and Matija Nastasic as Kompany's centre back partner.
The cause of City's problems would seem to lie further forward. Last season Gareth Barry was often the preferred partner for Yaya Toure in central midfield, and they provided a tough shield for any team hoping to counter attack against Mancini's side. Allied to the defensive work of James Milner, a frequent inclusion in Mancini's team, City had a midfield who could not only pass and dominate games with distinction, but also crowd others out defensively.
That has seemingly gone this season. The defence is reasonably similar in terms of personnel but Javi Garcia does not appear to have adapted to the defensive side of the English game particularly quickly, judging by his showing against Arsenal last weekend, where Toure was left alone to provide the link between defence and midfield. Similarly, Toure had done the same thing against Real Madrid, proving the link man between the defensive and attacking phase.
But Toure's role has papered over the drop in the standard of David Silva's performances. The Spaniard has been absent without explanation for some time for City, failing to replicate the same form he showed in the first half of last season. It was his brilliance which powered City through the opening weeks of the season, but as his form faded, so did that of the rest of the team. It took a return from Carlos Tevez to add life into City going forward and rescue their title challenge and ultimately win them the Premier League.
But Tevez is not a midfielder, and without a presence in midfield to dominate and control proceedings as Santi Cazorla did for Arsenal last Sunday at the Etihad Stadium, City lack something. Not just going forward but defensively. As Barcelona have shown, possession can be a key defensive tactic. City's ability to dominate possession last season was a key reason for their defensive strength. Without that, and lacking the defensive presence in midfield to contain opponents, Mancini is struggling. The only reason they looked like getting away with being overrun by Arsenal last week was because Arsene Wenger's side were profligate going forward, and at half time Mancini returned to his defensive instincts. Silva had lost the ball 21 times, more than any other City player, and rather than seek to dominate more, the Italian brought on Jack Rodwell.
Immediately the difference could be seen, with City more solid in midfield and Arsenal less able to get the ball forward quickly. But this was a defensive, pragmatic move designed to keep Arsenal at bay and hit them on the counter attack. It backfired, with an error from Lescott proving costly.
A 4-2 defeat at home to Aston Villa in the week will have compounded Mancini's worries, and he now has a big decision to make if he wants his team to get their form back on track. Of course they have yet to lose in the league yet this season, but a visit to Fulham is a particularly tricky test for a team lacking defensive solidity. Will City revert to the pragmatism that epitomised Mancini's early days in charge? Or will they stick to their attacking blueprint and hope some of their key men rediscover their best form quickly?
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