By Chris Davie at Upton Park
A difficult week beckons for Roberto Mancini as Manchester City face the prospect of elimination from the Champions League, and failing to break down West Ham on Saturday evening has not served as an ideal preparation for Tuesday night’s tie against Ajax.
The Premier League champions registered 22 shots at Upton Park, with the best chance falling to Gareth Barry who miraculously managed to screw his effort wide from four yards out. But the fact that the most clear-cut opportunity presented itself to a defensive midfielder highlights one of Mancini’s primary concerns.
To penetrate a side who have conceded under a goal per game at home this season, Mancini opted to flank Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko either side of Carlos Tevez. It didn’t work. Dzeko looked awkward on the right wing and cumbersome in possession, slowing City’s attacks to a crawl, while West Ham’s George McCartney relished every time the Bosnian attempted to manoeuvre past him. It was a full-back’s dream.
Similarly, Balotelli struggled to excel in the channels. The Italian couldn’t grasp the timing of bending his runs inwards when Samir Nasri was in possession, which inevitably ended in the pair exchanging bemused looks as the ball ran harmlessly out of play. The 22-year-old was also guilty of missing two strong chances in each half, although his first came through a dead-ball situation rather than from any clever movement in open play.
Mancini cut an animated figure on the touchline, urging Balotelli and Dzeko to spot the distinction between a situation that required width and one where the duo needed to drive inside to cause James Collins and Winston Reid problems. The Italian’s instructions proved fruitless, although all of Balotelli’s chances were a result of the striker being in a central role, rather than from wide position.
To make matters worse, Kolo Toure’s safe performance at right-back offered little threat going forward. Vincent Kompany had Andy Carroll under control, West Ham’s counters were a rarity, but still Kolo Toure looked unable to make inroads in attack. The combination of the Ivorian’s rare forays forward with Dzeko’s ham-fisted approach to wing play restricted City from being dangerous on both flanks.
Mancini’s shortage of genuine wingers could prove problematic in the long term. Scott Sinclair was introduced in the 90th minute against West Ham and didn’t even get a touch in what was only his third league appearance for City this season. The 23-year-old was one of Swansea City’s exciting talents last year but his opportunities since his move in the summer have been restricted, despite Mancini evidently seeking a wide player whose natural talent is to attack full-backs and create chances for others.
The Premier League champions also lacked a consistent probe in central midfield. Nasri looked neat in possession but the Frenchman was found at times picking the ball up from the back four to launch attacks. Gareth Barry was excellent in his distribution but his best work, as he proved with his glaring second-half miss, is in the middle and defensive third, while Yaya Toure, for too long in the game, screened the back four.
It’s a typical tactic for Mancini to employ Yaya Toure further forward as the match progresses but the Ivorian was given licence to roam around 15 minutes before the final whistle. It wasn’t long enough, and with City lacking the fluidity across the front three, the earlier introduction of his midfield colossus in attack could have given West Ham more problems than they ultimately endured.
With David Silva out of the Ajax tie with a hamstring injury, Mancini will again be reliant on Nasri’s guile to unpick the Dutch at the Etihad Stadium. If Frank de Boer’s men can mimic West Ham’s resilience, City must be prepared to unshackle Yaya Toure earlier in the contest and sacrifice a little defensive security.
It wasn’t all negatives for Mancini, though. Matija Nastasic had a superb game alongside Kompany and, as the Italian pointed out after the match, a clean sheet is a welcome contrast to the leaky defence which plagued City’s start to the campaign.
With Pablo Zabaleta likely to return against Ajax, City will have a natural full-back who is competent going forward, which should add the balance that Mancini’s men lacked at Upton Park. While Sergio Aguero should also be fresh for the fixture after coming on as a second-half substitute on Saturday.
Perhaps the biggest bonus on Saturday for Mancini was the performance of Carlos Tevez, whose industry and purpose on the ball looked poles apart from the displays of Balotelli and Dzeko. The Argentine also flourished in a roaming role after half time and emerged as a catalyst in the majority of his side’s attacking play.
City remain the only unbeaten team in the Premier League, but Mancini must be mindful of his team’s inability to turn possession into clear-cut opportunities. In order to progress in Europe, the toothless attack at Upton Park cannot be repeated on Tuesday night as City attempt their unlikely escape from Group D.
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