Tomorrow night, Liverpool visit the City of Manchester Stadium for both the visitors’ and the hosts’ second “season-defining” fixture in as many games. On paper the tie looks enticing, but those of us now familiar with Mancini’s 1990’s Italian style tactics may argue that we should prepare for a spectacle more akin to last seasons bore draw.
An undeniable fact, that will likely have football purists up in arms, is that this game will not, and perhaps could not, be won with a cavalier attacking attitude. However, the spoils will not necessarily go the team who siply embraces most cautious approach. Tomorrow night, expect the victor to exemplify one quality over all others - organisation.
Last season, Hodgson’s Fulham side comprised a host of players who seemed to be playing above their natural level. The Cottager’s much praised defence contained the likes of Paul Konchesky, Aaron Hughes, Chris Baird and John Paintsil - players who have failed to perform at a range of clubs, yet looked like world beaters in black and white.. As Danny Murphy observed,
“The manager doesn't sprinkle magic dust on us… The manager and his staff work damn hard to make sure the lads know their jobs… He is a manager who organises his team well."
At Liverpool, Hodgson is working with, in majority, the same players that were available to his predecessor. However, as was hinted at against Arsenal, he will be attempting to mould them into an unrecognisable unit, first and foremost by instilling in each and every player the paramount importance of their own role in the team. Roy tends to promote organisation to the fore, and to create a uniform consolidated side who, as every visitor to Craven Cottage last year will testify, will be hard to break down. Hodgson‘s natural empahisis on neatness and rigidity is why his appointment at a side under such extreme financial pressure now seems so shrewd. He will not be heard to complain about his transfer kitty, any organisational failures must be ironed out on the training pitch, no matter the player’s apparent market value.
Both sides tomorrow night have potential match-winners in their squads, as teams like Liverpool and this nouveau riche City side always will. But, whereas a visiting Liverpool side last season tended to go out with only one thing in their mind - clean sheet - and regularly failed to achieve that goal, this season we should expect Hodgson to opt for a more balanced approach. Organisation will not come at the expense of all attacking guile. Under Benitez, Liverpool at times looked so cautious that they inadvertently increased the pressure on their own goal. Hodgson will be careful not to fall into that same trap, starting with Monday’s tricky opposition.
City, however, lined up for their first game of the season at White Hart Lane with the least ambitious starting XI one could imagine. Three defensive midfielders left them looking devoid of options, and happy with a point from the offset. This reflects the Italian Mancini, a man used to Serie A where an impeccable home record combined with consistent draws when playing away can be enough to win a title or two. What Roberto needs to work out, and quickly, is that this doesn’t cut it in the Premier League. Here, the required points total to be crowned champions is consistently higher than the Italian equivalent. Hopefully we will see a more adventurous team from Mancini on Monday night, although his pragmatic nature will prevent him from removing the reins on his new superstars completely.
An extremely exciting prospect is the first Premier League glimpse of the enigmatic Mario Balotelli. It is likely that in a game set to rely on nerve and concentration, one moment of magic will provide the difference. “Super Mario”, along with several others in this City side, is certainly a player capable of providing that. This is another example of the coach’s Italian influence, the classic theory of setting up not to concede and allowing your unplayable front man to grab the single goal that makes the difference. At Inter, Mancini tended to rely on Ibrahimovic, and with unquestionable success. It remains to be seen whether Tevez, Adebayor or indeed Balotelli will be able to provide this service with the consistency that the City faithful crave. The man who without doubt could have completed Mancini’s will feature tomorrow night, but will, to the delight of millions and the frustration of millions more, be wearing Liverpool’s number nine.