For the the traditional season-opener, the silver trail began at Villa Park. Mancini decided to continue with his tried 3-4-1-2 formation, during the pre-season he utilized this formation several times; with an aim to seek freshness and progression so his side do not become predictable for opposition. This dignified his motive to improve, as well as publicly stating his unhappiness at not signing new players to improve the championship winning squad. Improving a team that scored the most goals, had more shots than anyone else, the best pass success rate and conceded the least goals shows ambition. Easily understandable as he can see Chelsea, amongst other clubs, have been highly active this summer signing Oscar, Hazard and Marin this summer.
Mancini opted for Zabaleta on the left of the 3 centre back pairing, and Savic on the right of Kompany. Unorthodox to say the least, considering Zabaleta would have been better suited to playing as the right wing back. but nonetheless it didn't inhibit his performance as he looked solid and comfortable throughout. Testament to his versatility and attitude as a professional. In midfield De Jong and Yaya Toure formed a physically imposing central midfield with subtleness and energy, ahead of the two Nasri played in 'the hole' behind Tevez and Aguero as the link between midfield and attack. Trying to find space between the lines to probe and offer creativity.
Chelsea continued with their preferred back line that brought them European success, ahead of them was Lampard and Mikel who also kept their places after their successful endeavours last season as the two CM's in the double pivot. Expensive and talented signing Hazard started on the left of a 4-2-3-1 for Chelsea in what looks to be their primary formation from now on. Mata and Ramires completed a 3 behind Torres who was upfront.
City showed no signs of stalling in an important game, with a new formation. Their understanding of it during pre-season with the quality of players allowed them to control the opening exchanges. Establishing themselves and enjoying good possession of the ball early on. Creating early half chances for Nasri who made an early run beyond the defenders who was slipped in late by Aguero who delayed the pass, only to Nasri's frustrations. Another chance followed with Milner delivering a superb cross towards the fleet Aguero for him to scuff his diving header well wide of the goal.
Chelsea often broke well with Hazard cutting inside from the left, showing nimble footwork and great first touches. Also becoming a direct opponent for Savic who struggled against him, making a late challenge on the Belgian and then another blatant body-check on Torres which the referee oddly deemed to be free kick for Chelsea. Savic looked uncomfortable throughout out the half, especially when being pulled out wide to defend against the diminutive Eden Hazard.
When operating with 3 at the back, the right and left of the triumvirate are traditionally adept to coming out wide to defend on their stronger sides. Even as a make shift right back when playing it from the back. Savic was anything but this and was taken off at half time before he was sent off. Perhaps this could be why Mancini is on the trail for Daniel Agger who would be consummate on the left of a back 3, as he's comfortable being pulled out wide to defend, not to mention his expertise as a ball playing centre back, there aren't many around.
The wing backs moved forward simultaneously providing good with, required in this system for fluidity. Milner fitted in perfectly as right wing back, he attains the characteristics of one as his England performances showed at Euro 2012 in Roy Hodgson's physically demanding disciplined positioning off the ball.
De Jong was was his tenacious self with Yaya Toure in his element, box to box and providing good ball retention.
The Argentinian strike force of Aguero and Tevez caused problems throughout for Terry and Luiz when they took turns in dropping between the lines, thus allowing Nasri to move beyond them. Their movement was excellent, especially Tevez.
However, after all of City's good play, Ramires with some good footwork, escaped Zabaleta and Kompany before playing in Torres with a good weighted ball for the Spaniard to toe poke.
The red card to Ivanovic created even more space for Man City to probe and control the game, albeit, the sending off had no significant change to City's play as they were clearly the better side before the dismissal. Ramires stepped into right back, reminiscent of his Nou Camp heroics it was an easy alteration to make. Allowing Di Matteo to still keep all his attacking players on the pitch.
After the break, Gael Clichy was introduced replacing Savic, slotting into the left of the back 3 and seeing Zabaleta move to the right, although unbalanced as neither were CB's. Mancini knew he could afford to do so because of the man advantage they had. If both were pulled out wide to defend, they done it seamlessly because of they are natural full backs. City continued to impose themselves on the game, with one man more it became easier to stretch Chelsea.
As they did so, the excellent Yaya Toure picked up the loose ball from 20 yards out, before setting himself he executing a well drilled shot past Cech to bring the score level to 1-1. Toure has a habit of making long distance shots seem second nature to him. Following this Tevez scored a sumptuous goal, cutting inside in-front of a tirade of blue shirts before unleashing a thunderous drive into the top corner. Nasri's goal followed after through good wing play from Kolarov, stretching to convert the cross from the Serbian. Mancini will be pleased to see his Wing-Back assisting the goal. City were in full control and looked like they could score 2 or 3 more at least if it wasn't for the blocked and half chances.
Débutante Hazard made way for Ryan Bertrand, a like for like change more or less, slightly more direct with Bertrand left-footed and playing on the left wing. He followed up a re-bound from Pantilimon's blunder, 3-2 was the scoreline with 3 mins left to play.
City responded well with a power surging run from Yaya Toure beating David Luiz to a 50-50, before laying off a delightful weighted ball to the oncoming Milner who's cross was blocked at the near post.
Tactical Observations & Conclusions
Chelsea's lack of width
Chelsea's goal came through Ramires good foot work through the middle of the park, and with Hazard in close proximity to him it played into City's system throughout the game. Ramires isn't a conventional winger, as he started his career as a defensive midfielder at Cruzerio and box to box midfielder in a 4-4-2 diamond back in his Benfica days. Featuring on the ring wing, albeit he has pace to elude even the quickest fullbacks, he will, in large spells of games have the tendency to drift infield and run into cul de sac's. However, with the arrival of Hazard, Oscar and Marin the full backs will play an important role in providing width or Mata may have to revert back to the left wing?
Will Mancini continue with this formation?
In this 3-4-1-2 system, as a squad it benefits the majority because in Man City's original 4-2-2-2 (elements of a Brazilian classic formation due to movement of wide players inside) or 4-2-3-1, they don't play with traditional wingers unless Adam Johnson is introduced late on to stretch opponents. Mancini's preferred choice of wide players were David Silva and Samir Nasri, ball playing wide midfielder's that will look to come inside and probe between the lines.
However, in this new found 3-4-1-2 formation that contains the 1 player in 'the hole', this proves to be a conundrum as to which of these players will play in the hole. Silva is the superior player, with his place assured in the side in all his 2 seasons and even with his dip in form in the 2nd half of last season he was still selected, assisting 15 times in 33 starts (3 sub) and the most key passes in the league (104). On the other hand there is Samir Nasri who frequently in games will stay out wide on the periphery but look to come inside momentarily. Mancini has openly come out and said that he wants more from Nasri, although he scored important goals against Chelsea and Spurs including 9 assists and 76 key passes, he still hasn't quite convinced the fans. If this formation is to be used in their opening game then I assume Silva will start in 'the hole' and provide the creativity to the front two.
This formation can give Mancini needed tactical flexibility against improved sides next season, enabling him to alter formation during play and avoid his team from becoming predictable and one dimensional.
Question: What does this mean for Adam Johnson's career at City?
Getting the most out of Aguero, Tevez, Balotelli and Dzeko in the 3-4-1-2
The new system renders opportunities for Aguero and Tevez to work in tandem as they dragged Terry and Luiz out of position frequently, thus leading to needless fouls and openings for Nasri and oncoming midfielder's to exploit the space in behind. Their understanding and almost telepathic link up play can be the catalyst to them retaining their Premier League crown. The most notable performance against Norwich towards the end of last season, where they linked up to devastating effect, Tevez scoring a hat-trick & assist and Aguero scoring a brace - City went on to win 6-1.
Balotelli may get the opportunity to continue his goal scoring form off the back of an successful Euro 2012 personally. Last season he wasn't always selected to play as a striker, playing behind the striker or as an auxiliary left winger, even that had its problems due to his innate ability to work off the ball or sporadic approach to it led to dismissals (Arsenal at the Emirates). A conventional 2 upfront will see him partnered with Tevez or Aguero as Mancini was reluctant to play Balotelli and Dzeko together at times last season, Balotelli dropping into the hole as trequartista.
Dzeko's public frustrations last season often stemmed through a lack of consistent opportunities, amongst the other strikers he is the only one that can't be played wide or off the striker. Submitting to a place on the bench, but when he was given consistent opportunities early on in the season he scored 10 goals in his first 12 games in all competitions. Food for thought, eh?
*Chelsea still have Oscar to come back from his Olympic endeavours and Marin to play before we see a true indication as to whether this new look Chelsea side can sync. However, they are still in need of a right back, who can solve the lack of width I discussed before, but they also need a striker to challenge Torres. Man City looked sharp in their new system, and the understanding of players positions and roles seemed apparent, whether this system will be a regular feature remains to be seen. It will provide some welcomed tactical flexibility and competition to the team, as Champions it is dangerous to fall into complacency which can be easy. Against more fleet and traditional wingers it may prove to be a dangerous formation to use. The red card to Ivanovic didn't offer a sustained test to City throughout the game, so we will have to wait until the new season.