Wigan Athletic 0-2 Manchester City – Mancini’s tactical changes make the difference.

After a recent Champions League loss, Manchester City defender Micah Richards declared in the heat of the moment that his side were not comfortable playing in a back three. Later, manager Roberto Mancini said he wanted his side to be comfortable playing in any system he requires of them. On this cool night in Wigan that was put to the test and the players passed with flying colours.

Mancini may have won a title with this side and is coming up to his third anniversary in charge of City, yet it is clear he isn’t a manager who is content with one formation. He did, after all, go with a back three in the Community Shield just a few weeks after the club lifted their first top flight title in 44 years. While most managers find a system that they like and usually stick with it, the Italian has became a obsessed with the rotation of systems throughout games. Nowhere else is this more evident than in central midfield. In the six league away games, prior to this, he’s picked two holders three times and one holder three times from the start. He’s ended with two holders four times and no holders twice. At Wigan he opted for two holders in Javi Garcia and Gareth Barry with Yaya Toure pushed further forward. Maicon and Mario Balotelli also returned alongside Garcia who started his first match in almost two months.

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The decision was a boost to those who feel Toure needs to be higher up the pitch but the experiment lasted 45 minutes and didn’t work. Toure spent the majority of the first half pressing Wigan’s back three but when City were in possession he was almost in David Silva’s way in an attacking sense as the Spaniard loves to roam vertically and have a free role. Against a natural two in central midfield, with a back three, it made sense to eliminate one central midfielder, go man-to-man, and push a man forward and try to create a 4-on-3 when Wigan’s wide players were advanced. At the start of the second half he went to a 4-4-1-1.

football formations

Fifteen minutes after that, Mancini had seen enough from Garcia who was regularly being outrun in midfield. Barry was placed back centrally with Toure and James Milner was brought on to play wide right. This pushed Sergio Aguero central and closer to Silva who was now impacting the game a lot more.

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The addition of Milner seemed to unleash Maicon. Milner is an underrated player who is excellent at defending his position and bringing comfort for forward-thinking full-backs. The pair connected well immediately and certainly helped Mancini in his next move, just nine minutes after his last one, when he boldly withdrew Aguero and brought on Aleksandar Kolarov. It was time for width and time for a back three:

football formations

Less than a minute later Mancini was made to look like a genius, when Ali Al-Habsi spilled a ball and allowed Mario Balotelli to pounce. 1-0. Two minutes later it was 2-0 and game over when Milner sent in a rocket of a shot past Al-Habsi. Both goals came from wide areas. The first via Milner on the right stretching Wigan’s back five, leaving space in the middle for Silva to run into and supply Barry whose shot was spilled by Al-Habsi. The second one came via the excellent Kolarov whose cross to Silva, drew in FIVE Wigan players, before the Spaniard laid it off for Milner to finish the game off.


This was probably City’s most complete away performance of the season, yet it was far from perfect. In their opening 45 minutes they were again too narrow and didn’t get service to Balotelli. However, as the game went on the tactical changes brought the best out of their players, stretched Wigan and led to a barrage of chances on Al-Habsi’s goal.

Mancini has quietly assembled a squad of versatile players who can play in different areas and even in this game when Milner left injured he was able to use Mr Versatile himself, Pablo Zabaleta, in central midfield and bring on Kolo Toure to play in a back three. The biggest problem Mancini continues to wrestle with is width and when to use it. It was natural to try and go narrow and win the game down the middle against Wigan but the moment he stretched his team later in the game he found that his players were able to prevent the Latics from creating overlaps themselves. It is clear that City continue to struggle to open up teams away from home but as the game goes on, spaces develop and their opponents tire, as evidence in the amount of first half goals scored compared to second half goals this season (2 to 7). What is still to be determined is whether Mancini’s changes regularly cause this or benefit only when their opponents lose their shape. Games at Fulham and West Brom, for example, were difficult to pinpoint. However, on this night it was clear this victory was on the manager who noticed the changes and reacted accordingly.

Kristian Jack

QPR – now is the time for stability & to stop being run like a ‘Football Manager’ side.

Many of you have been there. I certainly have. You are in 2023, you have mastered your club and want a new challenge. Your name appears on the hall of fame list of the video game, your reputation is the top level the game will allow but you are bored. Bored of winning trophies with a top club. It is time for a new challenge.

You look through the teams and wonder which your heart will be drawn to. You sign up and start a new adventure. You cannot wait to sell and release players, create enough money to bring in a whole host of new players to get the job done. You are living a fantasy and it is fun. Unless you are Tony Fernandes. His fantasy is reality and so far it has been far from fun.

The Malaysian entrepreneur, who is so rich two years ago he founded his own Formula One team, now called Caterham F1, became the majority shareholder of Queens Park Rangers Football Club in August 2011, just five days into the side’s first venture in the Premier League for 16 years.

The overall feeling over his new club was that it was a safe buy, a side who had won the Championship and now with deep pockets had enough money to attract the players to ensure they would easily compete regularly in the Premier League for years to come. Across the capital, Fulham set the example and QPR wanted to follow.

Chapter One

Before he took over he’d watched a demoralizing 4-0 loss at home to Bolton in the club’s first match back in the top flight. That day manager Neil Warnock sent out this XI to start their campaign:

football formations

The three subs that came on that day were Bradley Orr, Heidar Helguson and Akos Buzsaky.

“Yes, it looks a thumping but I am relishing the challenge, hopeful to get 2 or 3 players in and give it a go. I’d rather be here than going to Brighton or Portsmouth in the Championship,” said Warnock after the match.

Hardly a ringing endorsement for a side few expected to be in a relegation fight.

Then came Fernandes. A day after he was unveiled, QPR went to Goodison Park and won 1-0. Players involved that day included starters Matthew Connolly and Patrick Agyemang and a substitute named Hogan Ephraim.

Warnock’s tune had changed: “Amazing result, we lost three players with a virus, the players were a little bit down but I said we’ve got to enjoy this. Now we’ll look forward to getting 4 or 5 more players before the end of the month.”

He was true to his word, spending £9m, and increasing their wage bill dramatically, on Shaun Wright-Phillips, Anton Ferdinand, Luke Young, Armand Traore and Joey Barton.

By the fourth match all five were in the starting lineup, a week after QPR lost 2-0 at Wigan with Bruno Perone starting and Bruno Andrade and Michael Harriman coming off the bench.

With the window shut, Warnock’s side for match number four against Newcastle featured five changes from opening day.

football formations

They would draw 0-0 and when Warnock used his third sub on Jason Puncheon, on loan from Southampton, in the 88th minute, it meant he had used 26 players in four matches. Fellow promotion sides Norwich had used 21, including a reserve goalkeeper, and Swansea 17 at the time.

The Newcastle game would be QPR’s first of 16 matches played outside of a transfer window, from September-December. They would win 3, draw 5 and lose 8. for a return of 14pts in 16 matches. It was clear the new signings were not good enough.

The New Year came, as did Federico Macheda on loan, and a trip to Norwich on January 2nd. Skipper Barton opened the scoring, got sent off, Norwich scored two and won the game. Neil Warnock was sacked six days later. Having guided them to promotion, the Yorkshireman was loved by the fans and didn’t get time to spend money in the summer due to the late change of ownership. Now the shops were open, Warnock was no longer to be the man in charge of buying.

Chapter two

That role went to Mark Hughes and flush with cash in the January sales he brought in Taye Taiwo, Djibril Cisse, Nedum Onuoha, Bobby Zamora and Samba Diakite. Rob Hulse, not given a place in the 25 man squad under Warnock, was also recalled to the first team.

By February 4th, after the window closed, all of the new players had pulled on the blue and white except Diakite. Hughes had a win, a draw and a loss in his first three games and welcomed fellow strugglers Wolves to Loftus Road. That day he went with this XI:

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Cisse opened the scoring, got sent off, Wolves scored two and won the game. A familiar theme.

In their next home match Diakite was finally fit to make his debut. He became the 35th (and last) player to be used by QPR that season. Fittingly, he got sent off and QPR lost 1-0 to Fulham.

In the final dozen matches of the season, QPR lost half of them. All six away losses came away from home but thanks to five wins and a draw from their final six home games they stayed up. Just. Hughes didn’t have any more players to dip into but still only picked the same XI in back-to-back matches once during that run and in total used almost as many players than Warnock did:

QPR 2011/12 PL season under Neil Warnock – 17pts in 20 games, using 29 different players.

QPR 2011/12 PL season under Mark Hughes – 20pts in 18 games, using 28 different players.

While Manchester City, his former employers celebrated their first title since 1968, Hughes faced the media minutes after his side had secured a second season in the top flight: “It’s a huge achievement because people don’t know what I walked into, to be fair. It was a club that didn’t have things in place that you need to be successful. We had a dressing room that was a little bit fragmented and we had to bring that together and mend it quickly”, said the Welshman who then boldly offered this 37-word statement: “This club will never be in this situation again while I am with the club, we’ll be fine, we are going to build and create a club that’s going to be really strong in the Premier League.”

Hughes set about planning for the new season but didn’t think continuity was what QPR needed. Neil Warnock had picked 20 Premier League teams and chosen the same starting XI in back-to-back matches ONCE. Hughes had picked 18 and had also picked the same starting XI just ONCE.

Chapter three

After singing the praises of the players who helped keep his team up, Hughes spent the summer moving most of them down the pecking order, signing enough players for a full new XI. He felt his team needed an influx of quality and it was time for another re-build at Loftus Road.

Rob Green, then Julio Cesar after just three starts from Green, came to play goalkeeper, Jose Bosingwa, Ryan Nelsen, Stephane Mbia, Fabio Da Silva to play defence, Park Ji-Sung, Esteban Granero were added to the midfield and attackers Junior Hoilett and Andy Johnson joined the squad.

Mbia, the last of the new signings to play for the team in the Premier League, made his debut against West Ham at home and became the 45th different QPR player to represent the club since they moved up to the top flight. In their 44th match. QPR would lose it by the way, 2-1, after getting a man sent off. Familiar theme’s an all that. He would later be sent off himself and then famously admit he thought QPR was in Scotland. Perhaps, he was dreaming of playing in Scotland’s third tier with the other Rangers.

In the twelve games Hughes was given in charge of QPR this season he picked 22 different players and once again only kept the same starting XI in back-to-back matches ONCE. Four points from 12 matches closed the book on his ten months at the club, where he had used an astonishing 38 different players in 30 matches. It’s little wonder he only got 24pts in that time.

Chapter four

Harry Redknapp is now in charge of the club and the expert minds of Simon Gleave and James Grayson show here just how difficult a job he has to keep them up. QPR may not need 40pts but at the very least they will likely need 36, the average number of points it has taken to survive in the last ten seasons. What they don’t need is constant turnover around their starting XI and another overhaul once the shops open again in January.

Redknapp’s starting XI at Sunderland in Tuesday night’s drab 0-0 affair at least gave them a clean sheet away from home, something Hughes never got in 15 attempts, and featured a midfield three that looked to have a combination of defensive awareness, tactical discipline (not actual discipline in the case of the rash Diakite) and an overall good technical ability with the ball. He asked the excellent Esteban Granero to move left when the maverick Adel Taarabt was in possession of the ball. The former Spurs man, who Redknapp once let go, was excellent cutting in field, getting in behind Sunderland’s central midfielders, and supplying balls through the defence and looked the only man who could unlock the Sunderland defence. Although they created little they did look a side who were more than a match for a Sunderland team few believe will go down this season.

football formations

At the Stadium of Light, Redknapp used Rob Green, for the injured Julio Cesar, Shaun Wright-Phillips and Park Ji-Sung as substitutes and you’d expect them and the likes of Junior Hoilett, Bobby Zamora and Alejandro Faurlin to feature often when they are all healthy but don’t expect many more to be involved regularly under Redknapp. The 65-year-old veteran boss is a man who is loyal to his favourites and that’s exactly what QPR now need. Last season at Tottenham he started nine players in 28 or more games and used the same amount of players the entire season that Hughes used in less than half-a-season.

Expect a phone call to Spurs to try and get defender Michael Dawson and a loan signing or two in January but otherwise QPR now are the same side you’ll be seeing come May. That in the very least gives them an advantage over last year. Thankfully, they are now under the guidance of a football manager. Not a wheeler and dealer:

Everton 1-1 Norwich – Moyes makes Toffees narrow but set-piece in last minute denies him a clean sheet.

Everton came into this match with only one victory in their past six matches and alarmingly had conceded 11 goals during that run.

Speaking after their last home match, an unconvincing come-from-behind 2-1 win over Sunderland, manager David Moyes said: “I am concerned about leaking goals, we need to work on a few things.”

For this match he was without the injured Kevin Mirallas, Phil Neville, Victor Anichebe, and Darron Gibson and most importantly was missing Marouane Fellaini, who was suspended. The Belgian international has played exclusively just off the front man this season, linking with the midfield and full backs and with him in the stands for this game, it was clear Moyes attempted something different.

Everton still lined in up in a 4-2-3-1, which effectively turned into 4-4-1-1 in defence, asking his wide midfielders to track back against Norwich’s wingers Robert Snodgrass and Anthony Pilkington. Moyes dropped Seamus Coleman at right back, who has not played well lately, opting for Phil Jagielka to move wide, the first indication, even before kick off, for the need to stay tighter and narrow.

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Chris Hughton’s Norwich were as expected, making just the one forced change at centre back, the injured Michael Turner replaced by Ryan Bennett. Wes Hoolahan once again was asked to play the pivotal role behind Grant Holt, something he’s done very well in the past month.

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Piennar & Naismith

When the game began Steven Pienaar, usually asked to play wide left, started in the ‘Fellaini role’ with Steven Naismith again continuing on the right where he has deputized admirably since Mirallas hurt his hamstring. However, it soon became very clear that both were asked to interchange often. It appeared Naismith was his manager’s preferred choice on the flank when defending, but the pair didn’t seem to be following direct instructions this way. The constant movement and swapping of positions between the two caused Norwich problems immediately, particularly Bradley Johnson, who was often worried about leaving Javier Garrido exposed, meaning that space in the middle opened up.

That’s precisely how Everton opened the scoring, Thomas Hitlsperger spraying a ball over to Bryan Oviedo on the left and after Steven Whittaker mistimed his run, the Costa Rican international cut in and found a wide-open Naismith in the box. The Scot had made a run from deep the moment the ball went to the left and Johnson, pre-occupied by Pienaar, now out wide, was too late tracking Naismith and Everton had the lead.

Anyone tuning in and hearing Everton had scored a goal from the wide left area will not have been surprised and although the goal came from an avenue the Toffees have run down often this season, it was a street they rarely occupied afterwards.

Baines stays deeper & makes runs centrally to find Pienaar

Much has been made of the relationship between Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar this season with the duo causing problems for many teams down the left side. However, Fellaini’s role centrally just off them plays a vital part, as he holds the ball up and draws defenders towards him.

Stats Zone shows how many passes Fellaini made towards the left side against Reading last week and how many passes Baines received as an attacking threat.

According to Who Scored, the Everton left back leads the Premier League in accurate crosses per game, at 3.8. With Fellaini in the side, a player who wins more aerial duels than he loses, it is not hard to understand why. Yet without Fellaini, Moyes asked Baines to change his style. The manager directed Oviedo to stay tight to the line and very wide, but when Baines received the ball there was a clear instruction for him to go inside towards Pienaar/Naismith rather than create overlaps. The first time he did it, on 16 minutes, the left back saw a shot saved by John Ruddy after a neat 1-2 with Pienaar again confused Johnson. Three more times in the first half, the former Wigan left back picked up the ball deep, sprinted inwards and connected well with his South African team-mate. In the end, Baines, who averages almost four successful crosses per match, had only one the entire game and that was a long corner that ended on the foot of a team-mate, initially, it wasn’t planned for. Something very different to the last match at Goodison Park.

With Baines holding his runs and coming narrow when he did penetrate, Jagielka staying deeper and Naismith and Pienaar swapping centrally, Everton were uncharacteristically very narrow, which affected the amount of balls that came into the box. The amount of width your side has doesn’t always connect to the amount of crosses you attempt per match but it certainly plays a factor. Stats Zone says Everton have attempted 311 crosses per game before this match in the Premier League, converting 96 of them. That averages out to 8/26 per match, yet against Norwich the results  weren’t close to that:

Can a team cross too much?

It is clearly a question Moyes has asked himself this week. You only have to watch Sunderland, for example, to know teams can stretch a field too much, leave gaps centrally and carelessly give the ball away with random, hopeful balls into the box. Everton are better than Sunderland and do not fall under that category but without their star man clearly wanted to change their style in this match in an attempt to create as many chances, while at the same time keeping a better tactical shape at the back by keeping their full backs deeper. The lack of crosses actually didn’t have a direct impact on the amount of times they created chances to score (although Nikica Jelavic was quieter than normal) and they should have put the game to bed before Sebastien Bassong headed a controversial free kick home in the final minute to deny Moyes three points.

Not wanting to focus too much on the fact the foul on Steve Morison that led to the set-piece was very harsh, the Everton boss went in another direction post match: “The basis of being successful is trying to get no goals against, and we have to do that more often. We cannot be relying on scoring two or three every week to win.”

It’s now close to two months since Everton got a clean sheet in the Premier League. With their next three games coming against Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham, it will be interesting to see if Moyes keeps with this style now that Fellaini is ready to come back. His comments would indicate he plans to.

Kristian Jack

One night in Barcelona to witness greatness.

A man shifted awkwardly in the seat beside me. He wasn’t anxious, far from it in fact, just inside a place where expectations were understandably high and, for this minute of the match anyway, not being met. He held tight the flag of Catalonia which was grasped inside his fist and occasionally in between his teeth in moments such as this. The world’s best player had just given the ball away again, a regular occurrence in the opening ten minutes. He didn’t look himself, not sharp to a pass and lazy in distribution and my temporary neighbor was disturbed by it.

Five minutes later he received a pass, and as the defenders in front seem to part like the red sea, he slotted the ball to the side of the goalkeeper with considerable ease. 1-0 Barcelona, Lionel Messi. Fitting it was him who was the instigator for 99,000 plus all standing in my first ever Camp Nou experience. Seconds earlier, some had already stood in awe as arguably the greatest player Spain has ever produced, Xavi, dribbled his way around four opponents deep in his own area to help start a play that led to the goal. The magician had seemed to be running into one blind alley after another but somehow, with incredible close control and technique, escaped the onrushes of the Zaragoza players and came out of the huddle with the ball where it belonged. At his feet.

It was to be Xavi’s night. Sure, Messi would score again, a blinder of a strike from 25 yards out on his left that found such a precise angle to steer its way into the net, yet it was Xavi who passed and moved time and time again. Alex Song, still finding his way in this side and still culpable of giving away a ball now and again, a sin in this city, also opened his Barcelona scoring account on a night when the home side won 3-1 but even his goal had to go through the main men before he was allowed to finish it off.

Some say Barcelona don’t take corners properly, but this side is obsessed with keeping the ball and with the game 1-1 after half-an-hour, Xavi played a corner short to his partner in crime, Andres Iniesta. Messi then came deep to receive the pass before weaving his way towards the byline and withdrawing defenders away from their spots. Song, now free inside the box, waited for the pass to come from the Argentine and knowing full well it would arrive he was ready to side foot home.

Three goals and three significant pieces of evidence stored in my memory from a whirlwind trip to Barcelona. 18 hours in total, two spent in an airport, one on a bus, another in taxi’s, two spent shopping, one eating, five spent sleeping and six spent in and around Camp Nou. Beside the goals, the memory bank stored the standing ovation for Carles Puyol, back from injury, who lasted 75 minutes. Barcelona fans are blessed with many things these days but having a player and personality like Puyol wear their shirt is close to the top of the list. My head archived the Alba-Iniesta-Villa threesome down the left that so intelligently worked together to create overlaps throughout the game. They made it look far easier than it is. I will recall the megastore which was mega, the atmosphere around the stadium with stalls selling anything you can imagine connected with the club, and the feeling that took over me at the final whistle.

For many inside the Camp Nou that Saturday night it was just another game but for those there for the first time, like me, I’d hope they got the feeling I got at the climax. As one world class player after another walked off the field, the famous Barcelona anthem bellowed out for one final time that night and I said to my friend that must have been what it was like to watch Real Madrid in the 1950s.

Barcelona have not always been successful and have never been this great for this length of time. Watching them play in 2012 was a special time. I’ve seen enough sport in my time to know the difference between watching good and watching great. I was fortunate enough to watch the Australian cricket team of the late eighties and nineties dominate their sport. Watching Wigan Rugby League team during the same era brought the same spine-tingling emotions, as did watching Ayrton Senna at the wheel of a Formula One car. Another level.

I’d often tell people how different the sport of Formula One is live in person than on television. You see so much more than what a programmed, slow-thinking television director shows you, plus you need the strength of all of your senses to sample it the right way. Watching Barcelona is very similar. You just see things you don’t on TV. With Pep Guardiola no longer in charge, Barcelona are under different stewardship now, in Tito Villanova, yet the same magnificent showings continue. They are a box office hit, a must-see show when they are in any town and I am just thankful to have witnessed one of the greatest sides of all time in person. No wonder the smile never left my face.