Manchester City are on the road to disaster by persevering with a back three, and Roberto Mancini is responsible.
Manchester City fans used to the relentless negativity that their wider history instills, when fantasising at the start of the season about the creative and wonderful ways their title defence could be blown, will have had plenty of suggestions as to who could stop their inexorable march to victory. Would Robin Van Persie make United's attack irresistible? Would Eden Hazard give Chelsea the creativity to reignite them as a domestic force? Perhaps. So far though, neither has had as much effect as one other man, City's very own fifth columnist, Roberto Mancini. It's said that it's not the enemy you see that defeats you, but his errors are becoming more glaringly visible with every passing game.
The evolution of a good team is always a difficult task, fraught with the possibility of ruining a winning formula, but City appeared to make the right transfers in summer. As well as boosting their options in attack, the replacement of Nigel de Jong with Javi Garcia ought to have signalled a move in the right direction for City - an incremental step towards precision, discipline and technical ability over the raw power that was relied on too often last season.
Instead, Mancini seems to be instead obsessed with deploying three defenders, much to the detriment of his team. A pointless late switch to such a system has been culpable in several of City's defeats this season, and had a hand in a few other underwhelming performances. Micah Richards' post-match interview after the Ajax defeat was damning: "It is something that we have not worked on a lot and it is the second time we have conceded after going to a back three."
There is a case to be made for the back three, and it does appear to be coming back in vogue, but with a few caveats. Firstly, it has done so largely in Italy, where wingers are seen as an untrustworthy foreign affectation. Secondly, the teams that have deployed it effectively have tended to use a 3-4-3 with players capable of playing wide roles in the frontline - Bielsa's Chile and Napoli both used the formation, rather than relying on the old Italian\Brazilian model of a narrow front three (Wigan's Franco Di Santo-Arouna Koné-Shaun Maloney axis bravely attempting to be England's answer to Ronaldo-Rivaldo-Ronaldinho a notable exception.) It's telling that the pie-guzzlers are the only other team that regularly deploys a back three in width-obsessed England, but then they have a very different set of challenges to Manchester City, and Roberto Martinez at least has the conviction to kick off with it.
In contrast, making a radical and confused change to formation while in either a comfortable or a difficult position seems to be counter-productive in the extreme, the sort of decision that only makes sense if Roberto Mancini is in fact a sleeper agent installed by Alex Ferguson. Yet that possibility aside, there must be a rationale behind it. David Platt revealed Mancini's thinking thusly: "Roberto wanted to have a go at it this season, and we had discussions about it. Last year we flicked into a three at times, but we did it tactically, such as when we were 2-0 up with 20 minutes to go and someone puts a big striker on, to snuff out the space. Then it was done more from a defensive point of view in the last 15 or 20 minutes when teams were throwing everything, and the kitchen sink, at us."
That Roberto Mancini sees the future of his side emanating from a tactic that was designed to shut out opponents may speak volumes, but Platt's comments reveal why Mancini has continually switched to a back three late on in games so often this season. It satisfies the three common features of a Mancini team: narrow, defensive, and poor in Europe. Mancini overcame derision towards his defensive stylings last season by unleashing his attacking players in a 4-2-3-1 that gave all of his key players a role that more or less matched their qualities, and won the title by playing attacking football. The reliance upon power and energy, however, cost them in Europe where a more disciplined approach is generally required. Mancini's answer is not, as Garcia's signing suggested, an increased emphasis on ball retention and discipline, but a more brutal, paranoid defensiveness.
Now we've had the theory, let's look at it in practice. Manchester City were leading 1-0 over Arsenal, and then they switched to a back three to protect their lead and drew 1-1. Manchester City were leading 2-1 over Real Madrid, and then they switched to a back three to protect their lead and lost 3-2. Perhaps the problem is merely due to a huge shift in formation halfway through a game? Well, at Anfield, City started with a back three, and were fortunate to pick up a point against a poor Liverpool side. Perhaps it should be used to chase games instead? Against Ajax, City were 2-1 down and then they switched to a back three... you can guess the rest. Why would any team, let alone the English champions, continue down such a ruinous path? It's silly. But then Mancini is a silly man.
It's often said that leaving things alone is the hardest thing for a manager to do. That's probably not true - it's more likely to be 'winning the Champions League with Barnsley' or 'getting Jermain Defoe to do anything other than run directly at the goal and hit the ball as hard as possible', but in Mancini's case, the cliché appears to have some truth in it. Barcelona were another team struggling to evolve to even greater heights when they began experimenting with three at the back, and promptly threw away the title. Unlike Guardiola's men, City are far from being so good that any evolution is beyond them, but they should at least look to settle for a future plan that amounts to more than naked self-sabotage.