I must admit to being stunned by the team selection for the Boro game. Pablo Zabaleta and Javier Garrido as the backs was expected, but a central defensive pairing of Micah Richards and debutant Dedryck Boyata was as unlikely as any I could imagine. A midfield threesome of Nigel de Jong, Vincent Kompany and Sylvinho was, well, creative supported by Martin Petrov and Vladimir Weiss on the wings. And if anything could top Richards and Boyata at the back it was Benjani starting as a lone striker.
And the Zimbabwean striker was terrible. I've seen some other sites give Benjani 7 out of 10 for his performance. 0.7 out of 10 would be more accurate. No guile, no strength, certainly no running to close down. Couldn't jump to save his life and a first touch that was slightly more gracefully than a hippo in tights. Nothing of any consequence until a minute before the half, Petrov storms forward, Benjani makes one silky run, receives the pass, one touch, bang 1-0. That was it, the whole game. Utter, abject, uselessness. The comparison between the striker and Carlos Tevez when the latter joined as a substitute in the second half was dramatic. Two strikers, one side of the pitch a player harassing the opposition, the other side a player who appeared as if he was giving half an effort at best. And yet, Tevez had two good chances and didn't come close with either. Who'd be a manager, aye? City are through to the 4th round of the FA Cup because for 5 seconds or so, Benjani was absolutely brilliant.
Back to the defense and after my surprise at the team selection I paid particular attention to Boyata. Again you'll see lots of positive press about him and I disagree with the broad generalities even if ultimately the conclusion is correct. In any central defensive duo there is nearly always a leader and a support player. John Terry is a leader, Ricardo Carvalho is a support player. Nemanja Vidic is a leader, Duran Duran's inspiration is a support player. At City Kolo Toure is somewhat a leader while Joleon Lescott is definitely a support player. Richard Dunne was a leader, Micah Richards is a support player. As I watched it became apparent to me that in Richards and Boyata you have two support players. The Belgian debutant was generally hesitant in the first half although making one excellent saving tackle in the penalty area. What was needed was a leader style defender and I was delighted to see that just such a player, Vincent Kompany, was moved into the back four to start the second half.
What I found fascinating about this was that Richards was the player that was brought off (with Gareth Barry coming on into midfield) to make way for Kompany's move. With no hint of injury this appears to have been a tactical decision and was an audacious man management gamble by Roberto Mancini. To take off the 19 year old in his debut could have been confidence crushing, instead the installation of the leader figure in Kompany along with switching Boyata from left central defender to right central defender seemed to increase the confidence and stability of the player. That's a heck of a risk to take in an FA Cup match, but full marks to the manager.
In the middle of the field the creative grouping of Kompany, de Jong and Sylvinho worked if not spectacularly. The Brazilian left back in particular showed a versatility to his game which makes him a valuable squad member. Kompany is a central defender who can occasionally player in midfield, but really I'd like to see him more at the centre of the defense as he was in the second half. Weiss was a disappointment offering very little to the proceedings. I'd much prefer that he be loaned out and get regular first team action rather than struggle in such a manner.
Tactically the team continued to mix and match. At one point Petrov was playing up front in what seemed a 4-4-2 but again we had the sight of the Bulgarian on the right wing. You can't argue the results I suppose, but when a naturally left footed player in Petrov is on the right wing and a naturally right footed player in Weiss is on the left wing it does offend some base tactical sensibilities.
As noted Barry came on at the half as did Tevez and with a spine of Kompany, Barry and Tevez things looked reasonably comfortable even if Middlesbrough did mount the occasional charge. Bellamy got a 15 minute run out which seemed to me more in getting him ready for the Liquid Cup Semi Final than with the actual Boro game.
Cupset avoided, another clean sheet and a job well done. Not a bad day's work. And still the craziest team selection in years! I think we may end up liking Roberto Mancini...
Update City's site is saying that Richards had a slight injury problem which caused the substitution. Point remains that pairing Kompany with Boyata helped the youngster in the second half.