A simple narrative blaming Joe Hart for Manchester City’s problems has emerged. This one-dimensional analysis ignores the realities of the Blues new style and tactics under Manuel Pellegrini, a system that leaves City open to quick counter attacks by the opposition. While Hart has had more than his fair share of howlers early this season, the failure of the central midfield, which is often outnumbered in matches (with City playing a 4-2-2-2 versus the opposition’s 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1), has led more directly to the problems Manchester City currently experience than any other factor.
I have previously repeatedly mentioned the naivety and foolishness of allowing Gareth Barry to leave the club on loan and not replacing him with a ball winning midfielder. But it seems even with a Barry type in the side, the Blues would get overrun playing in this current formation.
Roberto Mancini was often criticized for negative tactics that did not have enough width but what has become obvious in City’s away matches in the Premier League, as well as the humbling administered by the European Champions Bayern on Wednesday, is that by playing so open, City is not able to dictate the tempo of play.
Defensive errors by midfielders have become more and more common with City this season. It is not simply Barry’s absence but the inability of Yaya Toure to pick up surging runners into the area or Jesus Navas to close down space when attacking wingers cut inside.
No question exists that Joe Hart has been poor this season. But at times he has saved City, salvaging a point at Stoke in a match the Blues had no business getting a result in. Hart has also had to deal with a largely makeshift center back pairing although the Aston Villa and Bayern defeats exposed City’s regular duo of Vincent Kompany and Matija Nastasić.
Pellegrini needs a tactical rethink in the worst way. City has demonstrated a naivety and arrogance in the club’s play away from home during the league campaign. The Blues brass wants City to play like Barcelona but the realities of English football, where opposition pitches are narrower, weather is not often ideal and competition tends to be stronger, make it an impossible dream. I have been criticized by many City supporters on message boards and Twitter for advocating pragmatism and supporting Roberto Mancini. The club ethos at Manchester City does demand good football, which is why Stuart Pearce was so loathed by many fans during his tenure, but Mancini’s football — while tactical and probing — wasn’t entirely negative.
While the new setup at the club is certainly more progressive in its attacking elements than Mancini’s was, it is not practical in many matches the Blues will face. Thus, Pellegrini needs to seriously contemplate deploying James Milner as central midfielder, working end to end, playing deeper than David Silva or Samir Nasri would. Milner’s tactical discipline and defensive assets would allow Fernandinho and Yaya Toure more freedom to go forward without exposing the back four, as well as giving Jesus Navas a needed reprieve from defending deep as he has failed to do successfully when the opposition attacks down the left-hand side. Milner should replace a striker in the setup, not another midfielder. When playing at home, it can be Edin Dzeko or Alvaro Negredo. When playing away in the Premier League, I would drop Sergio Aguero and play either Dzeko or Negredo up top alone.
Joe Hart has not played well. But Manchester City’s problems run far deeper than the England number one. With a gauntlet of difficult fixtures beginning Saturday versus Everton, Pellegrini will need to figure it out quickly.