Manchester City’s title hopes took yet another serious dent as they could only manage a draw against Tony Pulis’ side. Manchester City’s season had initially looked like it was in danger of going off the rails – a shock 1-0 loss at Swansea in the league was followed by elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Porto – but Mancini’s men seemed to be back on track with a rousing 2-1 midweek win over Chelsea.
Stoke had won their last two home games before this match, and could take additional comfort in that none of Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United had managed to beat them at the Brittania Stadium in the league this season. In fact, Manchester City themselves hadn’t beaten Stoke at the Brittania Stadium since 1999, a statistic that Mancini definitely wanted overturned to keep the pressure up on league leaders and city rivals Manchester United.
Pulis made a few changes to his side that drew 1-1 away at Tottenham: Cameron Jerome’s goal in that game led to him being kept in the starting XI, albeit in a nominal right midfield role. Glen Whelan was in the side for the injured Salif Diao, and Wilson Palacios was dropped for veteran Dean Whitehead. Finally, previously-injured Matthew Etherington was back in the side ahead of Jermaine Pennant, all in a 4-5-1 formation.
Mancini chose Gareth Barry instead of anchorman Nigel de Jong in central midfield, and was dealt a huge blow upfront as top scorer Sergio Aguero was injured and replaced by targetman Edin Dzeko. Usual first-choice right-back Micah Richards continued to partner Kolo Toure at centre-back in the absence of Joleon Lescott and club captain Vincent Kompany, with Pablo Zabaleta playing at right-back.
Manchester City’s 4-2-3-1 formation was packed full with players who looked to cut into the centre of the pitch: Samir Nasri and David Silva are both natural central playmakers who on this occasion, were played in wide positions. They often switched sides, but that didn’t change the fact that both players were crowding the midfield to a similar effect to that of Fulham’s centralised 4-4-2 formation which was analysed here.
Of course, Nasri and Silva are much more accomplished players than Bryan Ruiz and Clint Dempsey, and one would still expect Manchester City’s quality to see them through. In addition, starting out wide weren’t unfamiliar positions to both Nasri and Silva, as Mancini has used them there many a times throughout this season.
Yet despite the pointers outlined above, Manchester City were unable to fully grasp control of the game, and unable to break down Stoke’s rearguard. The intricate passing outside Stoke’s penalty box between Nasri, Silva and Mario Balotelli weren’t producing any sort of chances, and Stoke were very content to sit back and try to score through a counterattack.
As always, the key to breaking down a defensively-minded opposition is to draw their players out of position. This can be done via two methods: either drag the opposition vertically by provoking their players to emerge from their defensive shell, thus leaving space behind to be exploited; or stretch the opposition horizontally by adding width, pulling the opposition’s fullbacks wide and creating gaps between them and their centre-backs.
Manchester City’s biggest problem this season has been the lack of a deep-lying playmaker who tempts the opposition to attack him, drawing the opposition out. January transfer David Pizarro from Roma was meant to be this player but his lack of match fitness and adaptability to the English game has resulted in little game time for him (he wasn’t even on the bench for this game). As such, Manchester City’s only option to breaking down Stoke’s resolute defence, was to play with width.
With Nasri and Silva already crowding the midfield, width had to be provided by Manchester City’s fullbacks. Zabaleta didn’t get forward as much as Richards used to, and when he did advance from his right-back position, he often passed the ball inside rather than attempt to cross it.
Left-back Gael Clichy was much more adventurous going forward and was an important part of Manchester City’s attack, sending an excellent cross from the byline for Dzeko in the 33rd minute, only for the Bosnian striker to head off-target.
The difference in their approach is summed up by these respective statistics: Zabaleta attempted only 2 crosses, none of which were successful. Clichy however, attempted twice the number of crosses, of which 2 were successful, and even managed 3 key passes, the second-highest number of Manchester City’s players.
Nevertheless, Manchester City were failing to create any clear cut chances, the biggest chance was that Dzeko header from Clichy’s cross. Previously, Dzeko also had a half-chance from a Nasri cross, and it was strange that Manchester City didn’t try to cross the ball more often.
Perhaps they were wary of Stoke’s towering defenders, but considering that Dzeko’s off-target headers were the closest they were getting to a goal, it seemed logical to continue crossing the ball for him. Instead, their first instinct was to play through the middle and at times, they appeared reluctant to pass the ball to Clichy even when he was standing unmarked out wide.
Manchester City’s lack of width was exacerbated by Aguero’s absence. Missing the league’s third top goalscorer was always going to reduce Manchester City’s chances of winning 3 points, but Aguero offers his side so much more than just goals. The Argentine dynamo is a tireless hard runner, willing to drag centre-backs out wide with him. In other words, a much more mobile striker than Dzeko and Balotelli, both of whom stayed central and sometimes, too static.
In response, Stoke put in a superb defensive display. Without facing any consistent threat from out wide, Stoke’s fullbacks Andy Wilkinson and Marc Wilson tucked in narrow, forming a very deep and solid backline along with centre-backs Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth.
Furthermore, the tenacious midfield five of Jerome, Whelan, Whitehead, Etherington and Jon Walters sat very deep as well, and this left no space for Silva and Nasri to work between the lines. One commentator summed it up perfectly when he said that players can only play ‘in the hole’ when there’s a hole to begin with, such was the tightness of Stoke’s overall defence.
Pulis’ team offered little tactical surprises: they were an extremely well-organised team unit in defence, never needing any sort of last minute heroic challenge. They looked to hit Manchester City on the counterattack, often played the high ball to Peter Crouch, with Walters and Whelan in particular offering attacking support behind their targetman.
Stoke also tried to exploit all their set-pieces to the maximum effect. They created a half chance when Crouch’s header found Jerome unmarked but he screwed up his acrobatic attempt, and almost went ahead after Shawcross had headed an Etherington corner goalwards, which Zabaleta clawed off the line.
Stoke’s aerial offensive threat was clear throughout the match as Crouch won more aerial duels than the whole of Manchester City’s back four combined (5 to 4). It was thus unsurprising that Crouch’s incredible wonder goal in the 59th minute came from Crouch himself winning the ball in the air from Begovic’s goalkick.
Being 1-0 down and chasing the game even more, Mancini was forced to ring the changes. He brought on Adam Johnson for the frankly poor Silva, whose influence on the pitch has been on the gradual wane during the past few weeks. If Mancini’s idea was to add more width, it was the right one, but it wasn’t employed through the the most ideal player.
Undoubtedly a winger, the left-footed Johnson plays on the right and looks to cut in very much like Arjen Robben of Bayern Munich. As such, Johnson didn’t stretch the play like his team needed someone to do, and although his end product was far from effective, he was still contributing more than Silva.
On hindsight, Mancini could’ve brought on Aleksander Kolarov, the left-sided wingback. Out of the whole Manchester City squad, Kolarov puts in the second-highest number of accurate crosses per league game, and would’ve definitely added more width than Johnson. Compare Kolarov’s 1.3 accurate crosses per league game with Johnson’s 0.6.
(Though Manchester City needed width, not necessarily crosses, the number of crosses a player makes is a good indication of the extent of width they offer their side.)
The other change Mancini could’ve made to create width, was to shift Richards back out to his usual right-back slot. Richards’ rampaging runs forward down the right flank have been a very strong feature of his game this season, and a crucial part of his team’s attack given their usual narrowness.
However, Mancini chose not to do so, and one could come to the conclusion that Mancini didn’t trust Zabaleta or Stefan Savic – the young central defender sitting on the bench who had already made quite a few major errors in defence this season – to partner Kolo Toure at centre-back.
Mancini often changes to a 3-5-2 system to provide additional width when chasing a game, but his lack of options in central defence – both Kompany and Lescott were injured as mentioned before – compounded with his reluctance to use Zabaleta and Savic there, led to him turning to other figures to rescue the match.
Carlos Tevez, decisive in the victory over Chelsea, was brought on in the 74th minute for Barry, as Mancini seemed to switch to a gungho 4-2-4 formation: Nasri and Yaya Toure formed the central midfield axis, with Tevez, Balotelli, Dzeko and Johnson roaming ahead of them.
Yaya Toure’s spectacular rasping drive was deflected off Shawcross and into the net, but Manchester City’s equaliser didn’t stem from any of the changes in personnel and tactics. In theory, Stoke’s players could’ve closed down Yaya Toure before he unleashed his blockbuster shot, but Pulis is unlikely to blame his players for not closing down an opposition player from a good 30 yards out.
Instead, Pulis labelled it ‘a fantastic performance’, singling out special praise for Crouch, who indeed had a great game: winning headers, holding up the ball and capping it off with a goal-of-the-season contender. Stoke performed with their classic defensive grit as they have done so throughout their stay in the Premier League, a very good team effort.
On the other hand, Mancini refused to meet the press after the match, leading to speculation that he wasn’t happy with Stoke’s physical and rugged defensive approach to the game where Silva had suffered from a head injury after Whitehead’s arm had clashed his head in an aerial challenge. No matter, Manchester City have now W1D1L1 in their last 3 league games, hardly relegation form, but far from table-topping form either. Mancini surely needs to formulate a plan B for his team if he wants to lead them to the title.