Pep elected to shake up the side that was so brutally taken apart at the hands of Everton last weekend. Out went Stones, Sagna and the diamond midfield. They were replaced by Kolarov, Sané and a 4-3-3/4-1-4-1 shape. Recent form has been poor and City would have hoped that reverting to a shape that served them well early in the season would be a catalyst for an improved performance against a strong opponent.
On the other hand, Pochettino and Spurs are the picture of consistency. They arrived at the Etihad on a fantastic run of six consecutive wins, with some superb and dominating displays to back up their form with their players excelling in the 3-4-2-1 shape they have used in recent games. Tottenham only made one change to the team that effortlessly dispatched West Brom 4-0, with Jan Vertonghen replaced by Wimmer after he suffered an injury in the second half of that win.
City Dominate With Deeper Midfielders
For the vast majority of the first half City were able to control the flow of the game through the revised positioning of De Bruyne and Silva. Since Guardiola has arrived they have primarily been looking to receive the ball behind the opposition midfield. Whilst this has its merits, in recent months it has led to stagnation in the final third due to a lack of players available in deeper areas to help circulate the ball and probe the opposition’s back-line.
In the first half, this was not the case. Silva and De Bruyne could often be seen receiving the ball in front of Tottenham’s midfield. Occasionally, a clear band of three could be seen as they dropped alongside Touré in order to receive the ball with a forward facing field of vision. This enabled both players to be more penetrative with their passing as well as offering increased stability in the team’s build up. Moreover, this also aided in resisting the pressing of Spurs as their tight ball control and agility allowed them to maneuver themselves or the ball into space behind the second line of pressing.
De Bruyne in particular benefited from receiving the ball in these deeper positions. Time and again he was able to play direct passes in behind the Spurs defence or out wide in order to advance the team further up the pitch and create dangerous scenarios for his team mates.
By having De Bruyne and Silva in deeper positions it meant that the Tottenham midfield duo had to advance further up the pitch to maintain access to the ball once they received it. As a result of this, there was a lot of space available behind them to be exploited. Both Sané and Sterling were given license to move inside into this space at will, with Agüero making movements into the space at the sides of the defence to ensure their markers could not follow them.
This led to a much improved attacking performance by City as the front three were able to interchange and combine in space that had not been available to them for quite some time. The first half structure reminded me of how Pep’s Barcelona team would position themselves and create space for their attackers. A deep midfield three to circulate the ball with wingers and the forward all attacking the space made by having a greater presence in deeper areas of the pitch.
Finally, the deeper positioning of the midfielders also enabled the team to be much more secure in defensive transition. This was exemplified by their ability to force turnovers after giving the ball away whilst also minimising the number of times that Spurs were able to launch counter attacks.
By having players in deeper positions it allows them to attack the ball carrier head-on and delay the oppositions movement in to attacking positions. Furthermore, it allows the advanced attackers to attack the ball carrier from the blindside and make attempts to win the ball. City managed to do this on a number of occasions and it directly lead to numerous threatening passages of play.
Spurs Rally to Capitalise on Poor Organisation
About half way through the second half Tottenham elected to change their shape to a 4-1-4-1 and cemented this through bringing on Son for Wimmer at the interval. It was through this change that they managed to improve their second half performance despite conceding two goals in the opening ten minutes of the half.
By moving to a 4-1-4-1 shape, they added an extra body to their midfield which allowed them to contest City’s midfielders in a more effective manner as they were no longer 3 vs 2 in the centre of midfield. Whilst this may have helped them clog the centre of the pitch defensively the switch failed to offer any definitive improvement in their attacking play. Instead, they took full advantage of City’s inability to organise themselves effectively when their defensive shape is disrupted.
Pep likes his defenders to be aggressive and step out of the defensive line to contest attackers who have received the ball behind the midfield. This is in order to prevent the attacker from turning and being able to face the play and to force them to move the ball wide or back in front of the midfield. In order for this to work the team must react quickly to cover the space vacated by a central defender leaving the defensive line; this is where City are constantly having problems. Either a full back or the defensive midfielder must move to protect the space that is left vacant and in the heat of the moment players are forgetting to fulfill this duty.
This lack of co-ordination can be attributed to both of the Tottenham goals, as in the build up to each goal Otamendi and then Kolarov leave the defensive line to close down an attacker. It is from this position that the problems begin. The first goal is a clear example of this, as Otamendi leaves to contest the ball neither Zabaleta or Touré cover him. Consequently, there is a huge amount of space in the centre of the defensive line and Dele Alli surges into the box to score from Walker’s cross as Otamendi takes too long to return to his position in the back-line.
In order for this method of defending to be effective it requires better positional intelligence from all involved. It is clear that they are able to execute this strategy to a high standard as evidenced by the first sixty minutes of the game. What is lacking, I believe, is an ability to remember the fundamentals of Pep’s playing model in the heat of the game. Whilst this is undoubtedly frustrating to watch at times, it is something that will rectify itself the more fluent the players become in his style.
City Push For Late Winner
After Spurs equalised there was a change in the orientation of the De Bruyne. Instead of receiving the ball he was tasked with primarily acting between in the spaces between the Spurs midfield and defence. Silva (later Delph) also looked to move beyond the midfield more frequently but only after assisting Touré in progressing the ball into the Tottenham half.
This made sense in theory as it added more attackers to put pressure on the Spurs back-line whilst also increasingly the possibility for combination play around the edge of the box. In actuality, it meant that City’s attacking play was congested and stifled with Gabriel Jesus’ chances falling as a result of Spurs being unable to clear rather than being manipulated by the City attackers.
Furthermore, with Touré being almost solely responsible for switching the play when the ball was in the final third it meant that the speed of the ball movement suffered. This was a vital factor in how City were able to disturb the best defensive side in the league for the first sixty minutes and unfortunately the late changes in player roles took away that edge.
In the end, this was a game that City could and should have won. The amount of chances created were more than enough to put the game to bed. But yet again the team’s own profligacy has cost them dearly. I’m not entirely sure what the answer to this problem is, the tactics and planning are allowing the team to create chances consistently, game after game, yet they are not being taken. These things will even themselves out though, eventually, they always do.
I can’t help but feel this game has similarities to the home leg between Atlético Madrid and Pep’s Bayern in the Champions League semi-final last year. This is as well as City have played all season and yet they still couldn’t get the result they so desperately needed. Whilst the disappointment (and frustration at refereeing decisions) will rightfully linger throughout the week it is important to remember just how well the team played.
The game offered us a glimpse at what the future may hold for this side and with some better finishing (and luck) the future looks promising.