Manchester City need to win their next three Champions League matches in a row to have a solid chance of qualifying for the knockout stage of the competition, and there are plenty of scenarios in which even that would not be enough to pull them ahead of either Borussia Dortmund or Real Madrid. If they fail to grab all three points against Ajax on Wednesday, they will be in very real danger of crashing out of Europe all together.
This season, Roberto Mancini has taken a beating from the press, from his own fans, and from opposing teams as a result of his formational tinkering. Without committing to playing in back three systems during the preseason and without signing players who fit well into systems that use a back three, Mancini has gone to three at the back regularly, often switching between a back three and a back four in the middle of games.
He's played Gael Clichy at the left central defense spot in a back three, even though he's much closer to a left winger than a true defender. He's played James Milner, who has been closer to a central midfield player than a wide player for quite some time, as a right wingback. Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott, two players who could not possibly be better suited to play the outside defense positions in a back three from a pure physical and technical standpoint, have constantly looked uncomfortable when asked to occupy those positions this season.
There's nothing inherently wrong with three-man back lines, and Mancini certainly has some decent personnel to implement tactics that utilize a back three, but he's failed to use the personnel at his disposal properly and prepare his players to execute their manager's gameplan in a formation that most of them have never played in before. He has also chosen the exact wrong times to start games with a back three and to switch to a back three in game.
This switch was almost the sole reason that City let in Ajax's dagger during the last Champions League matchday, and they conceded three times after making the switch against Madrid, having not conceded while playing with a back four. Mancini made the switch to a three-man back line in the 57th minute of their match against Dortmund, and it took them just four minutes for Marco Reus to score. They also lost a lead domestically while doing the same against Arsenal, turning a 1-0 lead into a 1-1 draw with a mid-match formation shift.
Compare this to last season, when Mancini had the complete opposite problem. He insisted on playing with two strikers and very narrow faux-wide men against Napoli, playing directly into the hands of their three-man defense, attacking wing backs and counter-attacking style. Away to Bayern Munich, his two-man midfield of Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure allowed Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger to control the match. By the 56th minute of that game, City was already in damage control mode.
This is consistent with Mancini's Inter Milan sides, who won multiple league titles but regularly crashed out of Europe, despite having the talent to challenge for the European crown. Mancini's stubbornness and unwillingness to adapt was generally the biggest reasons for the elimination of his Nerazzurri sides, as he was outfoxed by Carlo Ancelotti, Mauricio Pelligrini, Quique Sanchez Flores and Rafael Benitez before the semifinal round over four straight seasons.
Perhaps, after five consecutive Champions League campaigns in which his team played below their talent level, Mancini realized that his failure to adapt his tactics based on the situation and his team's opponent was the main culprit in all of his early exits. Even if he didn't consciously come to this realization, he appears to be overcompensating for years of staying the course and getting nowhere by making drastic in-game adjustments that are nothing like changes he's ever made before.
At this point, it seems safe to say that Mancini is not an elite manager in European competition. Unless a miracle happens, this will be the sixth season that he is at the helm of a truly elite side while they exit the Champions League in disappointing fashion. He is a solid manager who knows how to put elite players in a position to play consistently enough in league play to keep them in title contention, but when he comes up against the world's best on the continent, he is proven to be out of his depth over and over again.
With three straight wins over the next three matches and a victory over Manchester United in the league before the new year, Mancini should be able to rescue his job, but it wouldn't be surprising if anything short of that caused him to be shown the door at Eastlands. This may sound reactionary, but two failed attempts to get out of the group stages of Champions League is, or at least should be, unacceptable for a team of City's current quality. The man who led them to that first exit and who is on the cusp of leading them to a second exit has been regularly outcoached in Europe during six straight Champions League adventures. He hasn't been able to deliver on the very realistic goal of making the Champions League knockout stages, and he will likely pay for that with his job at some point.
When Mancini was hired in 2009, he was arguably the best appointment City could have made at the time. While they were obviously a world power in the making, they hadn't yet made their mark in Champions League or established themselves as a potentially destination for literally any world class player on earth. Now, they have done both of those things, and they are a much bigger side than they were in 2009.
City can do better than Mancini. The club's ownership, director, and director of football Tiki Begiristain know this. Unless Mancini puts together a string of results between now and the new year that makes him virtually unsackable, they'll be acting on that knowledge sooner rather than later.