Football games at the very highest level are rarely about the quality of the players. Certainly individual skill has its place and can create moments of brilliance. However given that the relative quality of the players is fairly even, as long as you have enough of them, strategy and tactics and the ability of the players to implement them is crucial to the outcome of a game.
This is why we talk so often about formations and whether the manager got his selections correct not to mention the in game changes. Obviously if all it took to get a team back into a game was a good old rollicking at half time all managers would yell at the players before the match to get a head start.
There are of course numerous ways to set up for a game tactically. The most obvious is the counter-attack, absorbing the opponents attack until a move breaks down and then counter-attack with pace. City have done a good job of this in recent years under a number of managers not the least it is a tactic that can be used to great effect against better teams. Now with the burden of talent it is City that must generally make the run of play looking for the break through, rather than the mistake that leads to the oppositions counter attack. It's here that in many ways, Yaya Toure, Gareth Barry and James Milner are their most valuable - not turning the ball over and reducing the opportunities for the other side.
But how to break open a team that has "parked the bus" or shown a healthy desire not to move forward? Great passing is one way, getting to the by-line another. However City have shown tactically a tendency to overload one area of the pitch, which brings me to Richards.
Do you realize the Richards in still only 23? It just seems like he's been around forever having been capped for England back in 2006 after bursting on the scene the year before. Before Richards settled down at right back, there were spells in the middle of defense partnering Richard Dunne and it was even suggested that the youngster would ultimately move into a Patrick Vieira like role given his ability to surge forward so well. However right back is ultimately where Richards has found a home.
Which is curious in some ways because I'm not convinced Richards is a great defender. Richards has a tendency to wander far too much. City this season have turned this into an asset, but it's the reason Capello keeps failing to call him into the England squad. Let's take the asset first. In City's standard first team, Milner, Silva, Aguero and Balotelli all play. Milner on the left, Silva down the right on defense, but then when City have the ball both Milner and Silva have license to roam. And they do, often down the right combined with Richards marauding forward. When done properly you have Aguero and Balotelli occupying the attention of the central defenders and Milner, Silva and Richards all focused on the space in and around the opposing left back. Even if an opposition midfielder comes back, City still have the tactical advantage of an over lapping Richards. Time and again you see Silva cut inside and then reverse pass to Milner who is in space because the full back has gone with the run of Richards.
Literally the addition of Richards to the attack, from a tactical standpoint, opens up the defense for ultimately Aguero and Balotelli to prosper. Yet City are also extremely fortunate in the current composition of the other teams in the Premier League. Quick, name a world class left winger playing in the league? Is there one? Gareth Bale may be all that there is. There's no one that even resembles say a Peter Barnes in full flight, never mind a truly world class winger getting to the line to make crosses. Which means Richards, and City, have the luxury of not having to worry about defending all the time down that flank.
Europe is different however. I don't think it a coincidence that Pablo Zabaleta was preferred to Richards in four of City's six European ties even taking into his injury for the Bayern game. Here Mancini needed a defender first but in playing Zabaleta, City also lost their cavalier goal scoring capability that has seen them score four goals or more seven times this season. This explains Capello's reluctance. Against international competition, all of whom have quality left sided attackers, Richards instincts would be a liability rather than a strength.
Which brings us to Chelsea on Monday night. Richards didn't play, out with an injury, and City were unable to break open a resilient Chelsea defense as Milner remained on the left and Silva no longer had the passing outlets in the right that have been so successful so far this year.
Micah Richards... City's most important player.