The test, as ever, will come in January when the FA Cup games start, and Yaya is off in the ACoN. That’s going to severely test the midfield depth of the side – I hope Milner/Garcia/Barry/Rodwell are up to the task (and they have to be fit).
Related – I wonder if we see the 3-5-1-1 formation get a serious run during January with Yaya out? Zabaleta can tuck in at CB if needed, and Lescott can play in the center of the 3 backs so that his ball handling duties are minimized. Kompany and Nastasic are more mobile and more comfortable on the ball (especially Nastasic), so spreading them to the flanks is a more natural fit than Joleon.
All of the fullbacks are capable of playing wingback roles, but Maicon and Kolarov seem particularly well-suited to the position if an attacking threat is needed, while Clichy and Zabaleta offer more defensive cover (and no little attacking threat themselves!).
The real rub, and I’ve been banging this drum for a while, is the lack of a true deep-lying playmaker. City don’t have anyone that can both dictate the pace in the middle of the park and spread the ball to the flanks efficiently or put balls over the top. The player with the passing skills best suited to the job is David Silva, but he’s not likely to be comfortable in such a deep role—especially not when he’s so effective at the front. This also requires two shuttling midfielders to play slightly in front of him – Milner has the work rate and the pace, but I’m not sure Rodwell/Garcia/Barry do.
The other option is having a double pivot, with Barry (for his passing ability) and one of the three of Garcia/Milner/Rodwell depending on injuries, pace, and aerial needs while the link to the forward players sits just a bit deeper than a number 10: Silva or Nasri are the best options on the roster for that configuration, even if it doesn’t suit their particular skillsets perfectly.
Having four strikers here is problematic, because they all have different skillsets and uses – Aguero is the best pure finisher as long as the ball is coming in low and the best at running off center backs to allow deeper players to come forward into space. Your shuttlers, or your deep 10, or strike partner, has to be aggressive about running into that space or you’re wasting one of his best attributes.
Tevez may be the worst pure finisher, but he’s the most dogged and harassing player, and undoubtedly the best of the four at distribution, as well as dropping deeper into midfield to collect the ball. If the team is going to press, Tevez is undroppable.
Dzeko is the unquestioned best aerial target in the box…but his holdup play as such is lacking. His touch is heavy and he’s not good at keeping the pace of pacing and movement high. He has great strength and can make his own space in the box (especially important with Maicon or Kolarov whipping in crosses) and whatever else you want to say about him, you don’t amass his goalscoring record without having a good finish on you.
Balotelli is the best holdup player on the team (and Tevez might be second) and makes intelligent, pacy runs when he’s on his game. He’s an aerial and two-footed threat…when he’s on his game. He’s City’s single most unplayable forward…when he’s on his game. My friend is a Liverpool fan and he put it thusly: “He’s got incredible talent, but I haven’t seen that kind of gut-level-I-don’t-give-a-fuck since Ronaldinho won every trophy and the World Cup at Barca. Until he figures out how to care consistently, I don’t want him on my team.” You know what? Mario isn’t 19 anymore. He’s running out of time to make the case that he can live up to his potential (and wages). “What could have been” might be the four saddest words in the English language and they also make people angry – a player of less talent and more effort that achieves the same results as a more talented, less determined player is thought of much more highly, even though the results are the same.
If any of you watch hockey, Alexander Semin is the perfect example. All-star level production on a per-minute basis, incredible goal-scorer and one of the most artistic players you’ve ever seen. But he’s the owner of all-world talent. Every teammate who’s interviewed has said that he’s the most talented player they’ve ever played with…and he’s on the same team with Alexander Ovechkin. Matt Bradley (Semin’s former teammate and veteran of the NHL) went as far as to say that Semin can be the best player in the world -period- if he wanted to. Semin is a 99th percentile player in the most competitive league in the world at possession and in scoring rates…but he’s one of the most resented and disliked players because he’s perceived as being less than he could be. Balotelli strikes me the same way.
If he’s on his game, Mario and Aguero are probably the first choice for this configuration – Mario holds the ball up while Aguero makes his runs to either get open or drag the CBs out of position. If Maicon or Kolarov (or both) are in, then Dzeko is the best choice to get on the end of high, late crosses and Aguero is once again the best partner to get on the end of anything that he does knock down — the best finisher and poacher on the team, for certain. If the opponent is clogging the middle of the pitch and both Maicon and Kolarov are on, then a Balotelli/Dzeko pairing up front is probably the best option: spread the play to the flanks and then whip in high crosses – both men are tall and strong enough to compete with even the best CBs. If the center of the pitch is packed, that means there’s time and space in the wide areas, and both Maicon and Kolarov can craft excellent balls in given those resources. Against a strong midfield or in a pressing game, Tevez is the choice for his workrate and dropping deep to help keep possession, as well as another linking outball.
None of these formations is entirely optimal for the players that City have — ironically, this is a formation taken in response to Yaya’s absence…that would be best served by Yaya Toure. It feels wrong to cheer against a team that City players are part of, but I selfishly hope that the Cote d’Ivoire crashes out quickly this year. I’m not sure the team can afford another January like it had last year.