Emi has gone and nothing is going to change that, but now I would like to see a very clear tactical plan moving forward.
If they persevere with the 4-2-3-1, City are stuck with a philosophy they cannot financially afford to perfect. I’d prefer we change the base formation and be optimistic about how we move forward.
This squad is limited and we must work with what we have. In my opinion, Sam Byram, Ben Gibson, Lukas Rupp, Dimitri Giannoullis and Kieran Dowell are simply good value players. They are routine signings that most clubs of our size would be expected to make. This is not derogatory, but it does imply that the recruitment since the arrival of Teemu Pukki, Buendia and Tim Krul has been ordinary, with the exception of Oliver Skipp last season. However, the overall development has been sensational and both Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke have worked wonders.
Krul, Grant Hanley, Ben Gibson, Kenny McLean, Todd Cantwell and Pukki are brilliant players and the formation should based around their strengths.
Back to front, the goalkeeping department lacks a Premier League backup. We have four centre backs; Hanley, Gibson or Andrew Omobamidele and Christoph Zimmerman and they are good enough. We have two viable fullbacks with extremely optimistic cover from Byram and Bali Mumba.
We presently don’t have any fit central midfielders. We only have two in total, Rupp and McLean. Debatably, you could argue about Jacob Sorensen.
In attacking midfield neither Marco Stieperman, Pepe Placheta or Onel Hernandez can force themselves into the first team and without Buendia, we are left with Cantwell and Dowell. Now, I’m a big fan of Todd, Kieran has improved, but neither are wingers, or strikers, or deep midfielders. Both are suited to a specific style of play, and there are no other midfielders capable of dictating a formation change because of their ability.
Of the strikers, Jordan Hugill and Adam Idah have not been able to displace Pukki at all, and again, Pukki is very much orientated to a specific brand of football. Despite fleeting attempts, just like the midfielders, no player is good enough to impose a tactical switch.
This is not intended as a moan, it is a tactical observation. The midfield and the attack (or those good enough) are engineered to play 4-2-3-1, and that’s why I’m worried because let’s be ruthless here, City ride a knife-edge of success and failure playing 4-2-3-1.
When Emi was suspended, 4-2-3-1 failed in the Championship because the team could not adapt. If we couldn’t manage 4-2-3-1 in the Championship without Buendia, then in the Premier League you must also question the respectful ability of three or four other players.
Additionally, Webber has repeatedly emphasised the need to improve the squad by being ‘stronger, taller and heavier (and faster)’. This is a concept I emphatically agree with but it is also a concept that they have failed to apply in their recent transfers, Dowell probably being the most recent and prudent example, who is still going to get pushed off the ball by a 34-year-old Mark Noble.
The trouble is, Webber can’t afford to give Farke a ‘taller, stronger, heavier’ version of Mo Leitner or Buendia because Fernandinho and De Bruyne are too expensive and in the Premier League, that’s the standard that makes 4-2-3-1 work. For everyone else, adapt and improvise.
I can’t think of many teams in the bottom half of the Premier League that apply 4-2-3-1 as their recurring base because even clubs with big transfer budgets cannot afford the ideal players to enable the formation.
In the last relegation, even with McLean and Alex Tettey, 4-2-3-1 was brutally exposed. The CDMs need to be able to play as well as physically compete, which is why Farke started this project years ago with Leitner, Tom Trybull or Mario Vrancic first and foremost in his plans.
This season, Skipp and McLean continued the defensive concept, but it was proven to only be viable with the enigmatic talent of Buendia, who could compensate for the lack of goals and creativity from the CDMs.
In conclusion, to enable 4-2-3-1 at the highest level, and to compensate for Buendia, I think Webber would need to buy more players than the transfer budget can afford.
It is not a whinge, it is me trying to be optimistic and pro-active: I think City need to reassess whether a different formation would be more financially viable.
Aarons and Buendia will likely be replaced but neither are central players where the ‘stronger, taller, heavier’ physical improvement needs to apply. To achieve it centrally, does anyone propose replacing Pukki, Dowell or McLean through the middle of the team? If you think a winger that can play as a striker is the answer, supposedly like Matheus Pereira, then don’t pretend that the squad will be ’stronger, taller, heavier’. It simply won’t be.
Therefore, especially without Buendia, the solution lies in a change of formation, as much as in the confines of a transfer budget.
By changing formation, City can buy quality over quantity and make best use of the remaining squad. Personally, I liken the Brighton squad to our own. Albeit by the skin of their teeth, they routinely play 3-4-2-1 and survive. Such a formula is the optimal solution, financially, technically and physically. It is also the most affordable and the least disruptive. City could surely afford Matheus Klich, or Stefan Johansen, to partner Kenny McLean?
Cantwell should be given a more attacking role which offers Pukki the closer support he craves. McLean should be playing box to box whilst the team concurrently needs a playmaker. The loss of Tettey and Skipp would be mitigated with three centre-backs who would also be better suited to absorb the high press.
The aim of this season is about staying in the Premier League aligned to a budget that is limited to perhaps two influential signings and some low-cost squad strengthening. When you consider the potential transfer targets, players like Adam Armstrong at Blackburn, you can easily see how adaptable 3-4-2-1 would be. It’s more compact, it epitomises Farkeball, and there is safety in numbers in defence, midfield and attack. It doesn’t need exorbitantly expensive players and it suits what we already have.
But we won’t do justice to Hanley, McLean, Cantwell and Pukki by flogging a dead horse. 4-2-3-1 without Buendia didn’t work in the Championship. 4-2-3-1 with Tettey and McLean didn’t work in the Premier League. We cannot afford the players. Period.
Our destiny isn’t an argument about selling Buendia, it isn’t about transfer budgets, it is about who we can afford to play where and in what base formation