Man City snatched a controversial winner in stoppage time over a determined Reading side who arrived at the Etihad and parked the bus.
Both sides showed a number of changes from recent games.
Vincent Kompany made the bench following his return from a groin injury, enabling Kolo Toure to start. With Gael Clichy out injured, Dutch youngster Karim Rekik started at left back. Gareth Barry was recalled following his suspension and partnered Javi Garcia, giving Toure license to push further upfield.
Sergio Aguero and Carlos Tevez hoped to extend their record of Man City always winning when the two begin a game together.
Man City used a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Reading boss Brian McDermott rang the defensive changes following the heavy home defeat to Arsenal. Only Adrian Mariappa survived from that game with Chris Gunter, Alex Pearce and Ian Harte all recalled.
The Royals lined up in a 4-5-1 which would become an increasingly defensive formation as the game wore on with Pavel Pogrebynak often isolated.
Despite their overwhelming possession (73%) and their high number of attempts on goal (21) Man City struggled to create any clear-cut chances against a determined Reading side. In some respects, the game mirrored a training exercise with one side attacking while the other remained content to sit deep and try to maintain a clean sheet. Reading only made 166 successful passes from 235 attempted. Their gameplan was clear from the start. It was left to Mancini and Man City to find an answer.
Reading Defend Deep
The graphic below captures the Reading approach for much of the game. There are nine Reading outfield players in the graphic with the back four deployed along the edge of the penalty area.
By defending so deeply and so narrowly, Reading were content to allow Man City space on the flanks with Jobi McAnuff and Jimmy Kebe moving wide to close Man City players down when the ball went wide. Otherwise they remained close to their midfield colleagues.
Man City only attempted five shots from outside of the penalty area so perhaps Reading were correct to defend in the manner in which they did.
Man City Attack Narrowly
This is a subject which has cropped up previously. By using inverted wingers such as Samir Nasri and David Silva (or as was the case during this game, Aguero and Silva) in the wide positions, their natural inclination is to cut in diagonally towards goal. This creates a situation where the opponent is overloaded centrally. But what happens when that tactic is what the opponent wants? What happens when the opponent is also trying to clog the central area and what results is a mass of players in a particular area of the pitch?
The graphic above shows Yaya Toure about to deliver the ball into the penalty area. From the eight Reading players visible in the graphic, there are eight within the penalty area. There are no Man City players positioned on either flank offering width.
When a ball is delivered from a deeper position as it is above, unless it can be delivered with real pace, it is easier to defend against.
In addition to this, players such as Silva, Aguero and Tevez are never going to enjoy particular aerial success against more physically imposing players.
Against a compact and well organised team employing an ultra low defensive block, the attacking team must use a range of tactics to open up the opponent.
By playing so high up the pitch, Man City reinforce the strategy being employed by Reading. The Royals want to defend deep and being pushed back enables them to do so.
City have to try and draw their opponents out to create space. This could take the form of developing play further down the pitch to tempt the opponent forward. Alternatively it can involve taking an opponent on when the opportunity presents itself. City’s most dangerous moments in the game often revolved around Aguero collecting the ball deep and riving at opponents. By committing opponents and drawing players from their positions, space can be created.
The final issue which must be addressed is the absolute need for width. The deployment of players on either flank can stretch the opponent laterally. Even if the players positioned on the flanks are not being used in an attacking sense, holding their position combined with the ability to recycle possession quickly will inevitably lead to openings as the opponent is pulled across the pitch. Retaining their position becomes an increasingly onerous task.
Man City rely upon full backs for width. Their only realty option for the becnh was Scott Sinclair who was introduced late in the game. It’s an area City need to address and quickly before more teams start clogging up the central area.
The Winning Goal
The only goal of the game arrived in the 92nd minute by which point it appeared that Man City had run out of ideas and Reading would hang on for a precious point in their battle to avoid relegation. The goal also provided the only real talking point of the game.
The graphic above captures the incident perfectly. Was Gareth Barry fouling Nicky Shorey when he headed the ball into the net? Shorey made no initial attempt to head the ball and whilst Barry did rise early for the header, by the time the cross had arrived Shorey was now unable to jump due to Barry being on his shoulders.
Who should be penalised here? Is Shorey trying to obstruct his opponent? Or is Gareth Barry preventing his opponent challenge fairly for the ball?
The positioning of Barry’s arms is perhaps key. They are clearly out by his side. He is not pushing down on Shorey but trying to attack the ball whilst Shorey wants to avoid any contact. With hindsight, Shorey should simply have attacked the ball and conceded a corner. His initial hesitation has cost his side.
There were few protests from Reading players after the goal with complaints only really emerging after the full time whistle. Whilst the legitimacy or otherwise of a goal can never be confirmed by the reaction of players, the initial reaction to a decision on the pitch can be very revealing. Shorey’s reaction after the goal betrays the later reaction of his manager and team mates.
Whilst Brian McDermott was incandescent with rage at the incident, Mancini, unsurprisingly, was content that it was a perfectly valid goal.
With Man Utd dropping two points at Swansea, City close the gap to four points behind their neighbours. Against a team that defended so deep and narrow, it’s difficult to accurately assess City’s performance. It’s clear that they need much greater width when attacking as Reading’s sheer weight of numbers in the centre of the pitch managed to half the majority of City’s attacks.
So close yet so far for Reading. It’s not a game that they would have targeted getting any points from but the manner in which they lost is likely to be the most frustrating aspect for McDermott and his players.