Manchester City's tactical shifts make for a brilliant performance
Holistic has been the buzzword at Manchester City since Roberto Mancini was dismissed as manager at the end of last season. It was much derided at the time, but City's 4-0 demolition of Newcastle United on Monday evening was a demonstration of what holistic football can look like. If City continues to play as well as it did in its Premier League opener, new manager Manuel Pellegrini won't have to worry about his job security.
The statement City probably regretted releasing when showing Mancini the door referred, of course, to more than just team selection and style of play, but it was evident from City's four signings this summer than there was a clear system of play in mind, with at least one alternative. It may be that in tougher games City goes for a three-man midfield and a lone forward with Javi Garcia or Gareth Barry replacing one of the two central strikers, but this was how it will play when it believes it should win the game -- and for other teams in the Premier League, that is a terrifying prospect.
Other teams will defend better than Newcastle did but City was relentless and, more than that, it has fluidity and options. So holistic was it, in fact, that the least likely players started taking on the characteristics of others: Edin Dzeko briefly became David Silva in beating Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa by knocking the ball to one side of him and running round the other, but only after Silva had taken on Dzeko's role by heading the opener, the first of his 15 City goals to have been scored with his head.
The basic shape was a 4-4-2, but this was as far from the type of 4-4-2s that dominated English football in the 1980s. Sergio Aguero played just off Dzeko for the most part, although they frequently switched. Dzeko -- always a baffling player, capable of alternating between brilliance and abjection in the blink of an eye -- was superb. His deftness on the ground contributed to the two first-half goals, while his sweeping pass on the turn out to the left for Aguero just before halftime was sensational. The overriding impression was of a much happier player than the one of last season; Dzeko was not, it's fair to say, a great fan of Mancini's confrontational style of management.
Aguero's natural movement is to the left, which fits perfectly with the shape of the midfield four. While Jesus Navas essentially stayed wide right -- just drifting enough to create space for Pablo Zabaleta's forward surges -- Silva played in a tucked in role on the left, not a winger but not a traditional playmaker either. The result was he found space again and again and Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa did little to pick him up.
It was Silva who was the origin of the opening goal. Yaya Toure -- playing deep in central midfield with Fernandinho and taking it in turns with him to break forward, another source of fluidity and unpredictability -- took a throw and laid the ball left. Ben Arfa, dozing, stayed wide, leaving Silva in space. He played the ball in to Dzeko, who had made a diagonal run to the left. Dzeko wobbled by Mathieu Debuchy, who had a shocking night, and although his cross was almost cleared, Silva, under no pressure from a dilatory Cheick Tiote of Newcastle, headed the ball in.
City probably should have had two penalties in the first 12 minutes as well. Dzeko was the key link in both moves -- first exchanging passes with Zabaleta before slipping in Navas to return the ball for the Argentinian fullback and then rolling a ball to the surging Toure. He did get his second assist after 22 minutes, though, flicking a Vincent Kompany pass on for Aguero to score with a precisely angled finish.
Newcastle didn't look like it was going to come back, but once Steven Taylor had been sent off for cuffing Aguero it became simply a question of how many City would score. Other teams will test City more defensively, and whether the Toure-Fernandinho pairing is secure is an aspect yet to be tested, but on Monday there were only two slight doubts. The first was the passing of Joleon Lescott, who offered two reminders in the first half of why the attempt to switch to a more possession-based style meant him stepping down for Matija Nastasic last season (Nastasic has only just resumed training after an ankle injury so may again become first chance). With Micah Richards injured and Kompany suffering a groin problem on Monday, Javi Garcia ended up playing in central defense.
The other was more theoretical: In an ideal world, City would probably rather Zabaleta and Gael Clichy played on the opposite flanks. With Silva tucking in on the left there would be better balance if the more attacking fullback could overlap, while the possibility remains that Zabaleta may find his sallies stymied by Navas' instinctive preference for staying wide -- although it was never an issue against Newcastle. Still, if the concerns are as abstract as that, it's indicative of a side looking extremely impressive.
As it was, City added just two more goals in a pedestrian second half (although it should have had a fifth when Alvaro Negredo was denied a debut goal by an erroneous linesman's flag). First Toure bent in a lovely free-kick, the Samir Nasri, on for Aguero as Silva went into the middle, pounced on a loose ball after another mistake from Debuchy to score the goal that ensured City topped the table.