Say what you will about the obscene amount of money being spent by Manchester City this summer, but you have to admit that there’s a certain perverse pleasure in watching someone build a real-life club lineup in much the same way that most regular joes would create their starting XI in a video game.
Okay, let’s take West Brom out and put Sealand FC into the Premier League. I’ll build a giant floating stadium in the North Sea for them. Awesome. Let’s drop Kaká in the middle here, and David Villa up front with Jozy Altidore… ooh, gotta bump his numbers up a bit… Cool. Hey, let’s make a Kevin Garnett character and put him in goal. He seems like he could have been good at that…
Man City manager Mark Hughes hasn’t gone quite that crazy, of course, but at first glance, he appears to be making the same mistake most novice video gamers might make when building a team: loading up on strikers. At some point, a gamer realizes that Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi, Kun Aguero and an injury-free Michael Owen — who seems to exist only in computers and preseasons — can’t all play together at once. Someone has to win the ball and control it in the midfield.
Of course, Hughes hasn’t forgotten this. That’s why he spent £17M on Nigel de Jong in January and another £12M on Gareth Barry this summer. Still, Manchester City has thrown a whopping £129M at forwards since being taken over by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan last August, and the projected front line of Robinho, Emmanuel Adebayor and Carlos Tevez alone cost more than £82M.
Throw Stephen Ireland in with Barry, de Jong and that forward trio, however, and Hughes’ plan begins to come into focus. Man City is attempting to emulate FC Barcelona.
And why not? Barcelona used their 4-1-2-3 formation to shatter opponents and win a convincing triple last year, so it’s practically destined to become imitated widely. It’s entirely possible that Sheikh Mansour, like the rest of us, watched Barca break down Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League Final and asked Hughes to build a side exactly like that. He’s also put Hughes in the unique position to do that with just about any players he wants.
The parallels are obvious. Adebayor is the big striker in the middle, a la Samuel Eto’o, while Robinho and Tevez are set wide like Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi. Barry and Ireland are there to control the midfield like Xavi and Iniesta and feed the forwards, while de Jong sits back and provides cover like Yaya Toure. Sort out the central defense, and Sparky could find himself managing a contender.
Plenty of questions remain, though. For starters, can Hughes rotate his strikers enough to keep everyone happy? Craig Bellamy, Roque Santa Cruz, Benjani, Valeri Bojinov, Felipe Caicedo and Ched Evans are all fighting for spots, too, and some of them won’t be satisfied playing just cup ties. Does Elano see any playing time in this midfield, which would suit his skills well, or is safe to assume he’ll be gone come August? And what happens to pure wingers like Shaun Wright-Phillips and Martin Petrov? Do they become square pegs in this triangular front six?
Ah, but that’s the fun thing about building a video game roster. When you’ve got the right players, you can experiment with just about any formation you want. Perhaps Hughes can revert back to the familiar 4-4-2 when the situation calls for it. It would be far more interesting, though, to see if that Barca-style 4-1-2-3 could succeed at Eastlands over a full season. In fact, I might just recreate that lineup myself in Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 this weekend and see how well it works.