Welcome to the first installment of a weekly series in which we'll address pertinent tactical thought strands and musings.
On the table today is a focus on Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City and their "balanced" outlook, Liverpool's new 3-4-1-2 formation and some tidbits from Serie A.
Manchester City's Balanced Outlook
Under Roberto Mancini they were rigorous, under Brian Kidd holistic; Now, under Manuel Pellegrini, City have been widely described as a "balanced outfit" with no set formation on paper.
It's causing those who like to define systems in crude numeric form—a la 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-2-2—plenty of headaches, but instead of worrying about labels, just enjoy it for what it is: seamless transitions, mutual understandings and, yes, a superbly balanced outlook.
It's fair to say the Manchester City before us are a far cry from the side Mancini controlled, with the Italian's issues in the wide areas well-documented after falling to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup final.
One of Pellegrini's first signings was Jesus Navas, a true wideman who combines raw pace with a lust for chalk on his boots. He and Fernandinho have not received the credit they deserve for transforming this City side, and while results have been up and down, the progress is clear to see.
This "balanced" outlook was a key factor in the destruction of Newcastle United and Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium.
Those reading live text scrawls of the City-Newcastle game probably thought the editor had made a typo when they read "Edin Dzeko crosses the ball in and David Silva heads it home."
But no, that genuinely happened, as Pellegrini's free-flowing system dictated that when Dzeko went wide (to find space), Silva took his role as a centre-forward. Under Mancini, City would have boasted three left-wingers and no one in the box.
This image, below, should tell you all you need to know about City's win over United last weekend and why it was such a walk in the park.
Despite dominating possession for long spells and hemming their rivals into their own third for five- or 10-minute chunks, City were most potent on the counter.
Navas stays wide and commits the full-back, taking Evra out of the game and, critically, maintaining the width of the field for City to use going forward.
This draws Michael Carrick consciously to his left (to plug the gap) and prevents him from pressing/meeting the ball-player, Vincent Kompany, head on in order to hurry a pass.
Instead, he's somewhere in the middle, and Antonio Valencia—dropping into midfield due to Marouane Fellaini being out of position—is not used to the role and is merely keeping equidistant between Carrick and the ball. No blame for him here.
But Alvaro Negredo is in acres of space just behind the double pivot, and Kompany picks an easy pass into his feet. He turns, runs 30 yards and shoots wide.
Navas doesn't touch the ball, but his influence on allowing the move to happen, changing the holding midfielder's automatic reaction and positioning and opening space is key.
It's going to take a little while for Pellegrini's charges to truly grasp the concepts the Chilean is relaying, but when they do...
Liverpool's Shiny New Formation
Liverpool and Manchester United met for the second time this season in the League Cup on Wednesday night, and Brendan Rodgers produced a curious formation in order to fit his new signings in.
He fielded a 3-4-1-2 formation, of sorts—remember that crude numerical argument earlier on?—with Victor Moses supporting a forward duo of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez.
Moses was the focal point of the attack, dropping just off the forward line, receiving the ball and turning into space. Sturridge and Suarez swapped incessantly, drifted wide and truly tested United's centre-back pairing.
In defence, they converted to a 3-4-3 shape, with Moses joining the forward line and the three fanning out to press the ball high up the pitch.
At halftime, Sky Sports' Jamie Redknapp professed that against Liverpool's system, the full-backs—Alexander Buttner and Rafael—were the "spare men" (unmarked), and that United simply had to getting them on the ball in forward areas more.
That was, essentially, half true, as Liverpool only played without wingers in attack, and in defence dropped into a system where one of Moses, Suarez and Sturridge could pressure the full-backs at all times.
The key was to hit them quickly while still transitioning from attack mode to defence mode, but it took the home side 70 minutes to begin finding their wingers in huge gaps.
It was a very nice, well-rounded system, Liverpool were the better side and, with Aly Cissokho in the XI, could well have hit the back of the net. The game was decided on a moment of brilliance from Javier Hernandez on a corner, and the only concern moving forward, aside from Jose Enrique's performances, is whether the central midfield duo can contain stronger attacks.
Serie A Movements
There have been a few interesting tactical moves in Serie A so far this season, with a potential third likely to make waves across Europe should it occur.
Roma sit top of Italy's top tier despite another managerial upheaval this summer and the loss of Erik Lamela. Rudi Garcia has instilled a fantastic work ethic in the squad, used his options very well and recruited some rather excellent options—Kevin Strootman being the most critical.
The Dutchman, fancied by The Express to move to Manchester United this summer, has taken to Rome like a duck to water, solidifying a formerly suspect central midfield and setting Miralem Pjanic loose.
Garcia is favouring a 4-3-3 formation that gets the best out of full-backs, wingers and, critically, Daniele De Rossi. Under multiple leadership changes DDR has struggled, but he's in world-class form right now.
Sitting in fourth, and also unbeaten in Serie A so far, are Internazionale.
Walter Mazzarri swapped Naples for Milan this summer and, after a scary preseason, has hit the ground running. His 3-5-2 formation, made famous at Napoli, is working wonders for the Nerazzurri, and the addition of Hugo Campagnaro—his defensive leader at the Stadio San Paolo—has allowed the back three to slip seamlessly into his way of thinking.
He's revived Jonathan and Ricky Alvarez—two underperforming relics of old, mistake-ridden regimes—and has a decent blend of youth and experience. Inter are well worth your attention this season.