Roberto Mancini elected to start his two new acquisitions in the transfer window in the Premiership victory against Bolton Wanderers. www.aboutaball.co.uk reviews how Adam Johnson and Patrick Vieira got on.
After a month of frenzied transfer speculation surrounding Manchester City, the arrivals lounge at Eastlands was actually rather under-populated with just the two new names: Patrick Vieira and Adam Johnson, one a midfielder approaching the veteran stage of his career and the other something of a rookie from the Championship.
Both made their debut as substitutes at Hull City at the weekend, and both started against Bolton Wanderers. Furthermore both introduced themselves to the City fans with a significant part in the two goals that their side scored. However, their overall impact differed significantly.
A changed Vieira?
The decision to start the former Arsenal midfielder alongside Nigel de Jong at the heart of the City midfield prompted the question whether both were required in the starting XI of a game deemed an easy home win. Many felt that Vieira’s presence in the midfield (in contrast to Ireland, de Jong and Barry against Hull) put too much emphasis on defending rather than going forward.
However, noticeably Vieira spent much of his time the other side of the half-way line, leaving de Jong with the majority of the covering duties. Whilst many City fans will recall the Patrick Vieira of Arsenal with part grimace and part grudging respect as something of a midfield enforcer, he returns to the Premiership after a spell in Italy a slightly changed character in terms of his role on a football pitch.
His evolution started under Roberto Mancini at Inter, who often played him in a similar three-man midfield setup alongside the Argentine pair of Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti. Both are more comfortable on the back-foot, so much of the responsibility to get Inter moving forward from midfield fell to Vieira. This subtle shift in emphasis in his game was quite evident against Bolton, as the Frenchman’s forward passes were of a significantly higher standard than his defensive contributions.
His through pass for the second goal was quite magnificent: the perfect amount of back spin applied for the ball to hold up and fall neatly into the path of Adebayor to smash home. The finish caught much of the media attention, but the pass through from Vieira went rather unheralded, which was a pity because it was a fine ball.
The rest of Vieira’s passing was somewhat understated and not overly ambitious, but tidy enough. Nevertheless his defensive contribution was a little lacklustre. He was caught in possession a couple of times during the game, on one occasion in the first half hesitating on the ball outside his own area seemingly uncertain what to do with the ball. His tackling and closing down will also need to be improved – Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba unleashed a long-range effort from outside of the box at one point, and he really should have been picked up quicker by Vieira and closed down.
After playing the full ninety minutes, something he hasn’t done too much of in recent months at the San Siro, Vieira looked increasingly tired as the game progressed, but at 33 should still be more than able to complete games for City once his full match fitness comes to the fore.
On the evidence of the performance against Bolton, it looks like he may also have a slightly more attacking role at Manchester City, and if he produces quality through balls like the one for Adebayor on a regular basis, he’ll quickly have Arsenal fans wondering if Sol Campbell wasn’t the only ex-Gooner their side should have picked up in January.
A bit of a wide boy
Whilst Patrick Vieira’s home debut was a bit of a mixed bag, Adam Johnson’s was eye-catching to say the least. The former Middlesbrough player looks like he might have been a bit of a bargain at £6 million on the basis of the game against Bolton.
The one time England U-21 international looked a constant menace on either flank and won the penalty from the right side after driving into the Bolton penalty area before being tripped by Paul Robinson. Interestingly for a wide-man Johnson was equally happy to cut in to the centre of the pitch as try his luck by going down the line, leaving both Bolton full-backs uncertain as to his intentions.
Used as part of a three-man attacking line, Johnson was free to concentrate on influencing the game in the final third, and was at the heart of everything City did positively in the first half. Employing players with natural width was never part of Mancini’s game at Inter Milan, the Italian preferring a narrow formation that used someone like Dejan Stankovic as a play-maker in the traditional tre-quartista role, what we would refer to as the hole.
The acquisition of Johnson to come in alongside the existing options of Petrov and Wright-Philips, suggests that Mancini may be prepared to eschew that for an approach based on flank play. There is going to be plenty of competition of places on the flanks with Johnson’s arrival. After Shaun Wright-Philips’ rather wild contribution as a second half substitute, it looks like Johnson may be the natural choice to partner Adebayor and Tevez up front, at least for the time being.
Indeed such was his impact if he can maintain it, then he may be an outside contender for a place at South Africa in Fabio Capello’s England squad. Quite a change over the course of a season for a player who spent the first month of 2009/10 playing Scunthorpe United and Doncaster Rovers!
Both Vieira and Johnson look like they may have a role to play for City as they look to try and muscle their way into fourth place, or better, for Champions League football next season. With critical fixtures coming up against both Liverpool and Tottenham in the next five games, not to mention a clash against Chelsea and an FA Cup match against Stoke for a place in the quarter-finals, there will be no shortage of incentive for City to do well. Adam Johnson in particular could have a key role to play as the final and decisive stages of the season are entered into.