Roberto Mancini has assembled a group of hugely talented footballers at Manchester City but, to win the title, he will have to strike a balance with selection and tactics to ensure the blend is right. Aston Villa retreated quickly against them on Saturday, leaving two awkward barriers as they went, and the visitors ended up overplaying and losing their thrust. A different approach was perhaps required.
There were shades of Arsenal past here as City laboured in their attempts to score the perfect goal. While the visitors' powerful three-man midfield had enabled them to dominate possession, there were times when Gareth Barry and even Yaya Touré looked superfluous to proceedings. Mancini, with such skilful flank players at his disposal, might have been better reverting to 4-2-4 and attempting to exploit Edin Dzeko's clear aerial ability by flinging crosses into the mix.
As it was, by the time Adam Johnson came on, City could not shrug off the mind-set of trying to progress through the eye of a needle. David Silva and Johnson both have the ability to beat full-backs on the outside or inside but too often they were driven to passing in-field as Villa flooded back and blockedoff their options down the flank. The home side deserve credit for that industry. Whenever City pushed forward, Ashley Young went into the centre to support Stilian Petrov and Stewart Downing to make a five-man midfield barrier.
The home side's back-line, made up entirely of centre-halves, sat deep and held their ground. They offered City's wide man, whether it was Silva or Johnson, the chance to drift inside, which saw the visitors continually forced across the field. Mancini's side rarely pulled defenders out of their comfort zones or managed to squeeze in round the back. Gérard Houllier had relied heavily upon Villa's athletic prowess to stifle and frustrate, but City were too willing to over-embroider their patterns without any cutting edge. Brad Friedel in the Villa goal went largely untroubled for long periods.
There was discipline aplenty to admire in the home side's approach. Houllier's selection had, on paper, suggested an attacking line-up with Young, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Mark Albrighton and Downing all incorporated. But they were all instructed to defend, feverishlyleaving Darren Bent to forage in isolation. Albrighton and Agbonlahor suffocated the threat of Aleksandar Kolarov and Jérôme Boateng, with Bent's smartly taken debut goal giving the hosts something upon which to cling. Had the visitors scored first, the outcome would surely have been very different. As it is, they need to think again.