In Italy, it’s back in fashion. Three at the back is the in thing. And in a country blessed with the fashion sense of Milan and Rome, the in thing usually gets paraded around, adored, envied then ultimately imitated. Almost everyone seems to be doing it now. Antonio Conte is doing it at Juventus. Walter Mazzari has been doing it at Napoli. Francesco Guidolin the same at Udinese. And even the national team manager, Cesare Prandelli used it at the Euros. Against the world champions no less.
Roberto Mancini wants to be next. But the back three isn’t working as well for him as it is for his fellow countrymen. The Community Shield aside, the three at the back hasn’t produced a win for Manchester City so far this season in the Champions League. This is mostly because it has been used in the middle of games, only to then be abandoned for causing more problems than it solves.
Against Real Madrid, it was used in effect to match Madrid’s numbers in midfield. Against a 4-2-3-1, the 5 in midfield could be matched with City’s 3-5-2, which also had 5 in midfield. But what it meant was that the wing backs, who were now patrolling the whole flank on their own, now faced the twin threat of winger and full back. That explains why Marcelo had so much freedom on that day, culminating in him scoring.
And of course, the simplistic view is that 5 v 5 will cancel each other out. That holds only when everything else is equal. When then you have Cristiano Ronaldo against Maicon (and subsequently Pablo Zabaleta), or against anyone else for that matter, equality goes out the window.
Against Borussia Dortmund, it was introduced only then for the Germans to take the lead within minutes of its introduction. At the Amsterdam Arena, Ajax managed to score a third within minutes of the system being switched to a back three. It seems teams are taking advantage of the period between it being introduced and the players adapting to it to the maximum. It begs the question then why Mancini continues to do so in the middle of games.
Furthermore, it begs the question why the City players take so long to adapt to it.
That question can probably be answered by the fact that the players themselves may not be comfortable with it. Firstly, Mancini seems to indicate that Joleon Lescott may not be the man for the back three. Every time he has used it, Lescott hasn’t been on the pitch. Herein lies the problem. In the back four, Lescott has for the most part been integral, thus being one of City’s best defenders. When then he no longer becomes an option, then Mancini is not left with too many alternatives. Kolo Toure has been out of favour and out of form. Matija Nastasic is still inexperienced. That leaves him having to utilise a left back in Gael Clichy as part of the three.
And that is just it. Clichy is a left back, not a center back. The three man defence is made for three center backs. Granted, Juventus’s Giorgio Chiellini did start his career as a left back as well. But prior to being used as a center back in the three, he’d already been converted into a center back in the four. Now, he, just like Sergio Ramos seems to have lost the marauding instincts of a full back, while fully incorporating the solidity instincts of center backs. Clichy on the other hand is not on the same end of the spectrum as Chiellini and Ramos.
That seemed to illustrate itself in Amsterdam. With the substitution being made that ensured Balotelli replaced Lescott, Clichy spent the best part of two minutes looking at the technical bench, seemingly asking his manager for instructions. Instructions that should have been pretty obvious. It was clear that Mancini was changing to a back three. It was clear that with two left backs on the pitch, one of them being Aleksandar Kolarov, Clichy was the one who would have to slot in at center back. But Clichy kept on asking. When minutes later Christian Eriksen slotted in Ajax’s third, it was via a deflection – from Clichy.
So herein is the problem. Already Mancini is having to play one of his players in an unfavourable position. World class he may be, and this should really be no excuse, (as it is expected of him to fit in to various systems), but having to repeat the same instructions over and over again to world class players may point to another conundrum. It is not the communication that is failing Mancini, it is the belief.
The players seem not to believe in the idea. The idea of the back three. That may indicate why the players are taking so long to adapt to the system whenever it is applied. This therefore puts Mancini in the worst possible situation. Working with a group of players who do not buy into his ideal. This thus makes his attempts at applying it seem forced on them. When no one is buying into your ideals, as a manager, it can make for a very lonely time at the top.
And besides his hierarchy at the club, there is also the hierarchy of the Champions League. This is the most illustrious cup competition, where mistakes are punished, and the margin for error is slim. It is not quite impossible though. Mathematically, Manchester City can still qualify for the knockout stage. But for that to happen, Mancini must ensure that if he wishes to continue using the back three, then he must make his players believe in it before the next three matches come along.
If not, then maybe the back three is not the way for him to go.