Roberto Mancini must stick to a plan
Some discernible patterns of behaviour are becoming clear in Roberto Mancini, and they are always at their most visible when Manchester City have had a bad night.
One, used for the fourth time in Amsterdam late on Wednesday, is his vague claim that defeat was all his own fault, which is never backed up by an explanation and is increasingly obviously a device to obstruct a proper press conference discussion about what has just gone wrong.
Another is Mancini's trait of letting players have it, in the intense knot of media interviews which follow a game. It was Joe Hart's turn last month, when the goalkeeper's honesty about the defensive failings which saw a 2-1 lead sacrificed in the last five minutes at the Bernabeu provoked the manager's ire, 10 minutes later. "If anyone should criticise the team it should be me, not Joe Hart. I am the judge, not Joe Hart," Mancini said. The players – among whom Hart is the most popular figure of all – were less than impressed when they reached their seats for the flight home from Madrid and found Twitter awash with Mancini's barbed comments.
Hart has kept his counsel on the manager's words, of course, though a number of the players are understood to be less than impressed by this trend. There is a sense that Mancini's sharpest public words tend to be reserved for the players who will not kick up. Micah Richards knew how Hart felt that night on the Madrid runway because he's taken public criticism. So, too, has Gareth Barry and Adam Johnson, who has now taken his skills to Sunderland.
The names also reveal how the English contingent get more than their fair share of it from Mancini and on Wednesday night it was Joleon Lescott. Substituted six minutes after his mistake allowed Ajax their equaliser, the defender got some touchline Glasnost from the manager as he left the field. And if he checked Twitter on the Schipol runway, he'd have read the manager's not-so-veiled sarcasm. "It's my fault because I didn't tell him to jump," Mancini said of Lescott's error. The 30-year-old has learned to be phlegmatic about these things. He's known for months that Mancini has been eyeing a big-name defender to replace him – David Luiz and Fabricio Coloccini as well the advertised interest in Daniel Agger this summer. Then Matija Nastasic was hired and installed as first pick for the big games. Certainly, Lescott's season has had its imperfections, but this doesn't feel like terribly good management.
The detail is relevant to the analysis of why City are incapable in Europe while very capable across the course of a domestic season because it reveals why Mancini's players don't look like they'll run through walls for this boss. They have delivered two away wins out of seven for him on the Continent.
Mancini's experimentation is also a source of concern to the senior players, because Mancini really doesn't seem to know which personnel he wants and what his plan should be. Four systems in the course of one game - 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 3-5-2, 3-3-4 – said it all in Amsterdam. While Ajax, like Borussia Dortmund three weeks earlier, were an organic unit aware of the task in hand, City's entire midfield and attacking lines were rotated when the side went 1-0 up – as if they could afford to fiddle. Barry offered a telling comparison of City and Ajax yesterday. "They played in the style they have played for many years, by keeping the ball. We are not sure at the moment what the problem [is]," he said.
The new, three-man defence underlines the influence of Mancini's new defensive coach Angelo Gregucci, his former assistant at Fiorentina, whose arrival this summer offered more evidence that the manager only really trusts the Italians. It also provided the need for an extra training-ground translator, because Gregucci doesn't speak English yet. The new formation has looked vulnerable before – at Anfield in August, where City went a goal behind and were very lucky to escape with a 2-2 draw. Is Mancini's persistence with it an attempt to cast himself as the tactical technician to match Jose Mourinho, the man who delivered Internazionale the European trophy which he could not? Perhaps. Publicly, Mancini has said little about the decision to abandon last year's fairly dependable back four, but Richards' suggestion that they haven't practised it that much made the use of it on Wednesday night a fairly remarkable gamble.
Success in Europe is actually about having a very definite plan and sticking to it, as the example of one of the Champions League's great over-achievers of modern times proves only too well. That man, Rafael Benitez, has said that European knock-out competition is about "the management of 180 minutes, the tactical preparation needed to overcome opponents expected to beat us" and he should know. Take a look again at the Liverpool side who beat Milan in the Champions League final in 2005, including Djimi Traoré, Harry Kewell and Milan Baros. You can't imagine Mancini fancying that lot. "We had to make the best use of what we had," is how Benitez has summed up that night in Istanbul and it is a salutary lesson to any manager hooked on spending for success. Mancini ought to know this. When his Inter side faced Liverpool in the Champions League last 16 in 2008, Benitez singled out centre-back Marco Materazzi as the weak link and repeatedly showed his players DVDs of an overlapping Maicon, now at City, being caught out of position. Materazzi, overwhelmed by Fernando Torres, was sent off in the first leg, his replacement Nicolas Burdisso got red in the second and Liverpool won the tie 3-0, leading Mancini to declare he was quitting after the 1-0 home defeat at San Siro. It was one of many difficult nights in a competition which has eluded and haunted him ever since defeat as a player with Sampdoria in the 1992 final, when he seriously lost it with the referee in the 1-0 defeat against Barcelona at Wembley. As his manager Vujadin Boskov put it afterwards, Mancini just "wasn't with it" on that occasion either.
The City manager will point to his club's failure to deliver the players they wanted in the transfer market, like Agger and Eden Hazard, if they are now eliminated. But the spirit which Frank de Boer engendered in a very young group of players on Wednesday night, each playing to restore the glories of Johan Cruyff and make history, suggests that it is time for Mancini to accept that less is more. Time to settle on a team, make a plan and stick to it.
Roberto Mancini began with the 4-2-3-1 formation he regularly uses in the Premier League. Joleon Lescott was favoured ahead of Matija Nastasic for the first time in Europe this season, while Micah Richards was recalled at right-back.
After Samir Nasri had put City ahead, Mancini opted to change to a more defensive 4-4-2 set-up. Yaya Touré was withdrawn to a more central role, with James Milner moved out on to the right wing. Sergio Aguero was moved up front.
Two Ajax goals either side of half-time changed the tie and Mancini tinkered again, taking off Joleon Lescott and adopting a 3-5-2 style. Aleksandr Kolarov played on the left wing, with Gaël Clichy and Micah Richards in a defensive three.