LONDON: Six months ago I watched Manchester City suffer their latest European setback, a defeat away to Bayern Munich, and reached a conclusion: unless they change their strategy they cannot win the Champions League.
It gives me no pleasure to reaffirm that analysis in the context of City's last two defeats, but nothing has changed. The strategic flaws were as clear against Barcelona last week and at Anfield on Sunday as they have been regularly whenever Manuel Pellegrini's side have faced top-class opposition.
It is the same soup reheated with City, mistakes repeated, enabling higher calibre players to punish them, but rather than sit here and reel off a list of their failings, I've found myself grabbing a pen and paper to try to work out how they go about fixing it.
The starting point of my argument now, as it was in September, is City are unbalanced when they play 4-4-2 with Yaya Toure, David Silva, Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero in the starting line-up. They leave themselves exposed too often.
It is not the system that is to blame, but the characteristics of the players within it. I've played in great teams that made 4-4-2 work, but fundamental to its success is not only showing the desire to make things happen with the ball, but to be equally combative without it. Quite frankly, the desire of City's players in transition from having the ball to being without the ball against Liverpool on Sunday was nothing short of appalling in a game of that magnitude.
Silva is a player I admire as much as any playing in the Premier League, but there was one incident on Merseyside which summed up City. Silva was tackled and it took him 10 seconds to get back to his feet and another 45 seconds to rejoin the game as it proceeded around him.
You may argue Silva is primarily a creative player - and of course you'd be right - but in a 4-4-2 system you can't have such a dereliction of duty by anyone. It was embarrassing how City's midfielders approached the tougher aspects of the game. Recovery runs when the ball goes past you or you give it away, screening your centre-backs, shifting up and across with the ball to ensure a compact unit and pressing your opponent.
So what does Pellegrini do about it? You can break it down to three options.
First, he can do nothing and simply persist with the same formation as the last 18 months. City will continue to win around 90 per cent of their games in the Premier League when they're playing well, and maybe 80 per cent when they're having a bit of a dip, because they are better than most teams in England no matter what tactics they favour. They won the Premier League title playing that way last season, so can take the attitude that there is not much of a problem.
What will happen then is they'll be drawn to play Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid next season, too, and we can have the same conversations while I redirect you to this column some time around September following their next humbling European defeat. We can all save ourselves time and cut and paste the same articles about City's flaws.
The second option is trickier for Pellegrini. It involves dropping one of his big names. If he has decided 4-4-2 will always be the way for him, Toure, Aguero or Silva needs to be sacrificed. That may serve the broader impact of the team, but what impact does it have around the club? You not only alienate the player you have left out, but possibly others in the dressing room. I've been there when the biggest egos are bruised. Trust me, it creates an atmosphere around a club and public pressure the manager does not want if he can avoid it.
The third option, which I believe Pellegrini has no option but to consider to have any chance against Barcelona in the second leg, is a change of system. There may be some accusations of panic, or questions as to whether a change in philosophy has come too late, but when something is patently not working you have to earn your corn as a manager and come up with fresh ideas.
Pellegrini knows the current 4-4-2 won't work in the Nou Camp, so he could consider a diamond, or a 4-3-3. Even then the fundamental problem remains. If I was picking a City side in a diamond formation (see diamond team in graphic below) I still could not accommodate Toure, Silva and Aguero in the same line-up. If you go to a 4-3-3 (see graphic), I believe you lose too much from Aguero's game. As was shown at Anfield when Pellegrini sent on James Milner to reinforce midfield, Aguero is not as effective without a strike partner. He thrives with support, but when you pair him with Dzeko, Jovetic or Bony the midfield balance is not right. That's the coaching dilemma.
After scribbling a few formations and teams, I decided if you're going to play Silva, Toure and Aguero the best option is for City to adopt a
3-5-2 (see graphic) formation even though I'm no great fan.
It's a system that offers extra protection for the back players, enables Silva to drift into the pockets where he works so effectively, Toure the licence to be a little less disciplined with three centre-backs and gives Aguero the support he requires up front.
City fans might note a certain irony in this selection which demands I make a confession - I'm two years too late. There was someone who thought this was the right way for City to evolve in 2013
- a coach out there who recognised a long time ago City can't get to the higher level playing 4-4-2 with their star players. I was highly critical of this at the time, arguing it was unnecessary tinkering, meddling with a winning formula. For that, I apologise to Roberto Mancini. He saw these issues earlier than us all!
I can imagine Pellegrini has his own blank sheet of paper on which he is currently jotting down names in different formations, trying to figure out how to make City impose themselves in Europe.
All eyes will be on him when City play in the Nou Camp on March 18. Unless the strategy changes, the conversation will remain the same.