I hoped for a draw, we went for a win but in the end City were defeated by a Napoli team that has proved a thorn in our side during this Champions League group stage.
Looking back at the two encounters now, I still think we never quite worked out how to play against Walter Mazzarri’s unusual counter attacking side. The way we played showed our deficiencies, some I think that have been around for a while but others that have just recently come into view now that we have stepped up into the Champions League.
An excellent analysis of our defeat in Naples has been posted by the well read and always informative Zonal Marking. ZM draws out one of our newer weaknesses, in that we don’t appear to have a regista (a deep lying playmaker) within our ranks. ZM’s argument goes that if we’d have employed such a player against Neapolitans, he would have forced more of a change in Napoli’s rigid shape (which we found so difficult to get around) by drawing opposition midfield players towards him and therein leaving more space in front of the defence of our attacking players to exploit.
Naturally people look outward. Who can we sign? And whilst that may eventually turn out to be the case, it doesn’t mean that we can’t look within our current squad to see who could do play that role.
A look at our midfield and on the surface, it seems that ZM’s analysis has leverage. We all know what Nigel De Jong is about – he’s a destroyer of play, making the tackle and knocking the ball sideways to get our attacks moving again. I’ve heard a bit of criticism (unbelievably) come in for De Jong for allegedly being one dimensional, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better player of his type in the Premier League today. For me it’s no problem that De Jong is solely a defensive-minded player. There’s going to be times in Europe when we need someone to do his dirty work – we’ll certainly need him in the Premiership, and for me there is no-one better. But for the regista role, it’s a no-go.
Gareth Barry’s work rate is phenomenal but we all know he can’t fill this position. Barry comes in for a lot of criticism – for England as well as for City – but it’s the ground he covers and the things he does without the ball that make a difference for us. Still, he’s not a regista.
It’s too early for David Silva to occupy this position. He does his damage as a trequartista for now, floating around between the oppositions defensive and midfield lines. Maybe later in his career he'll move back, a la Paul Scholes.
That leaves us with Yaya Toure and James Milner. It’s been well documented that the Englishman's preferential role is a central, creative one, but Milner is a player that people associate with industry and versatility. He is a balanced player – he can attack and defend to a good standard but I've not seen anything exceptional going forward. What is exceptional in Milner is his work rate and commitment. And he has improved quite a bit in his wide play. When we’ve really demolished teams this season, Milner has always seemed to play a significant role. He certainly has the defensive capacities attached to the regista role, but it remains to be seen whether or not he has the creative passes in his arsenal to become a regista.
That leaves us with Yaya Toure, probably the likeliest fit for the role in our current squad. Everyone knows the deep midfield role he played in Barcelona. Likewise everybody knows what he can do in advanced midfield – not in terms of performing the role of the trequarista – but in terms of being a much more direct attacking midfielder and powering forward, with the ball, towards opposition defences.
Yaya is a top quality box to box player. He also has that elusive element to his game – the pass from deep that cuts open the opposition defence. The best example I can think of was in the 5-1 demolition of Spurs earlier this season, where he set up the second goal with an exquisite pass from deep. Last season, everybody loved Yaya when he powered forward. This season he’s been playing a deeper role, but not necessarily less attacking. Some of his passes that have set off our counter attacks have regista written all over them.
Of course, Yaya, played against Napoli, so if he’s meant to be a regista, why wasn’t he effective? The answer is probably that Napoli were too good for us on the night. Playing just behind Milner, Yaya wasn’t creative enough. Perhaps also he wasn’t deep enough to qualify as a regista. Perhaps Napoli found Yaya easier to pick up because he was advanced, in the thick of the midfield battle rather than overseeing things from a deeper position.
Our other deficiencies came back to haunt us – pace in wide positions, both in an attacking and defensive sense. Napoli were lightning quick but Kolarov, whilst he does do a job, isn’t the fastest. Neither is Zabaleta, although Zab is defensively savvy and usually compensates for lack of pace with good positioning. Going forward, we didn’t do well enough on the wings. Balotelli and Silva aren’t wide players – we know that – but they are exceptional when they come inside. The only natural wide player we have left now is Adam Johnson, and everyone knows that Mancini has him coming inside.
We are probably out of the competition but you never know. Villareal are playing for nothing and might want to go out on a high note. First we must focus on dispatching Bayern Munich, one hell of a task. My feeling is that we will draw with Bayern in a frustrating 1-1 affair. The Germans will give us nothing.
If we do go out, I don’t think fans can complain with the way we have approached the Champions League. We’ve been positive on the whole, as we have in the Premier League. It’s the biggest sea change from last season. I don’t know whether Mancini has done it to appease the fans, whether Khaldoon and Mansour have had a word and said they wanted more bang for their bucks, or whether Mancini feels more emboldened now he has the players to be more progressive. But our style – the style that pundits slated us for last season – has really changed. Basically we’ve been more positive and we’ve got burned for doing it. We have to look at it as a learning curve, as irrational as that may sound given that so many of our players have CL experience.
Of course the disappointment will still be there, and the question mark will remain over Mancini’s record in the Europe’s top competition. Remember too that Napoli also qualified for the competition for the first time this season and now it looks like they are going to progress. If they do, the bottom line will be that they handled the step up better than us.
So, not an ideal situation for the Blues, but if fans want cheering up, they can always listen to the Napoli chairman Aurelio De Laurentiis.