When Manchester City capitulated at the Bernabeu last night, it was a fair result based upon the balance of play, but odd that a team who seemed to have found their rhythm suddenly descended into chaos in the latter stages. Joe Hart was quick to speak out about his team's mentality, but City were all over the place, and it was partly due to some very odd decisions by Roberto Mancini.
The decision to switch to three centre-backs was a particularly baffling one. Other than the obvious dangers of completely changing a defensive system in the middle of a fierce away game, sowing confusion in their defensive ranks, there were other errors with the plan. When City needed to be closing down as much of the space on the pitch as possible, they ceded the flanks to Real Madrid, allowing them to progress unhindered to the City area, badly exposing their defence against Cristiano Ronaldo and Angel Di Maria, and eventually crumbling under the pressure.
Mancini seems determined to enforce a three-at-the-back system upon Manchester City that is entirely unsuited to them for a plethora of reasons. It is highly debatable as to whether it is a good match for the players Mancini has at his disposal: Firstly, their two first-choice centre-backs are overwhelmingly superior to their third and fourth, meaning that City simply cannot field their best eleven players with such a system. Secondly, Pablo Zabaleta lacks the athleticism to operate in a wing-back role, while there are also doubts over the abilities of Clichy and the ageing Maicon to do so.
Even more importantly, it is a plan which is unlikely to bear fruit in the two competitions Manchester City are competing for. A system that has such an obvious weakness out wide is unlikely to prosper in the Premier League, with its ubiquitous width and wingers. It is equally ill-suited to tight Champions League matches, where it concedes the opportunity to shut down opposition dangermen who play out wide. No team has progressed very far in the Champions League for quite some time with such a formation, and indeed Mancini's rival Alex Ferguson enjoyed a remarkable run of punching well above his weight in the Champions League with Manchester United by deploying a system that was the polar opposite, with defensively-minded wingers ahead of his full-backs.
City were not broke before Mancini began to attempt to fix them, but they still could've done with a tune-up. Amidst the euphoria of last season's title victory, it cannot be overstated that it was a far closer race then it ever should have been, and a difficult group was no excuse for such outright failure in Europe. Both problems had the same root cause: City had deployed power and fluidity at the expense of discipline and control, which was enough to overrun most teams in the division but could be sussed out in more tense situations by cannier teams. City's negativity cost them in 2010-11, and when the likes of Yaya Toure were let off the leash in 2012, the rewards were obvious. Regardless, Mancini seems determined to revert back to his defensively-minded ways, as evidenced by his team selection last night which, for the first half at least, gave no sign that they had any intention or desire to win the game.
The back three is an odd infatuation - the number teams that have done well at a reasonably high level with such a system in recent years are few. Napoli, Benfica, and Chile are all examples, but all of those also featured additional wide players ahead of their wingbacks who could provide good defensive cover. In other words, it was a good system for the players available to them. Mancini's wide-men are far less-suited to such a role, with David Silva and Samir Nasri both preferring to cut inside and possessing neither the desire nor the capability to defend competently from the front.
Instead of this bizarre tinkering, Manchester City's evolution this season ought to have been summed up by the replacement of Nigel de Jong with Javi Garcia - a more cerebral, disciplined and thoughtful approach to the same job. City are a title-winning team and should be comfortably ahead of their rivals on the domestic stage once again, and they need a back three like they need a hole in the head. To attempt such wholesale changes seems a needless risk, let alone to a system which is so unsuitable that it might as well have been dreamed up by Sir Alex Ferguson in an act of sabotage. Mancini is ceding ground to City's rivals in the name of an experiment which is unlikely to reap any rewards - if he does not check himself, he could end up throwing away last season's good work.