Manchester City have struggled in certain games this season and on Saturday they came up against one of the Premier League’s form teams in Tottenham. What options were available to City and what tactics were they able put into practice?
There is a growing narrative in English media around Pep Guardiola’s apparent descent into madness. It seems to be built mostly around the idea that the Premier League is so exceptional that even one of this generation’s standout coaches, a man who reinvented many of footballs core concepts, cannot stand up to this new challenge. Some might argue that the real challenge of Premier League football comes from the intense pressure placed on a manager (or player) from all other parties during the season. Ironically, The root of this can be found amidst the English media’s need to create narrative out of any and all situations which arise.
This is not to say that the coverage of football in others countries does not create pressure. The circuses which follow both Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain bring just as much intensity and constant questioning. However, Manchester City are a side in transit. They’re at the beginning of a project which is likely tougher than those Pep has faced before. The depth and quality of players that he had to choose from at Barca and Bayern Munich simply aren’t available and the style of play in the league is different to Spain and Germany. Plus, the lack of a winter break can be crucial in hampering sides which try to play with high intensity (see Liverpool’s recent performances).
These problems have been prevalent in Manchester City’s season so far. Coming to head with some very icy press conferences recently on Guardiola’s part. Added to that, Tottenham have seemed to have grown into the Premier League this season and recently showed their obvious tactical and technical quality in the 2-0 victory against Chelsea. In that game they were able to press back against Chelsea’s 343 with their own. Rose and Walker specifically have become masters at creating space for their teammates and penning back opposition defenders.
With Spur’s recent form in mind, and the fact that Mauricio Pochettino has proved himself adept at tactically outplaying teams whilst keeping the heart of his high-energy, high pressure philosophy, Pep faced what would be one of his most difficult games of the season. Many have claimed that the Spaniard is too set in his ways as a coach, stubborn and unwilling to make changes to his core ideas. However, not for the first time this season Pep came out with a change of plan and a slightly altered approach to both attacking and defending.
Earlier in the season, Manchester City came up against Barcelona in the Champions League. After being beaten 4-0 in the previous leg Pep must have known things needed to change and made the decision to sit deeper and use the pace of Sterling and Aguero to stretch Barca when City attacked. This would work well and lead to a 3-1 win for the Manchester club. It was an admission from Guardiola that his City team were not ready to play the game in the way he envisioned, and certainly not against the team who had mastered the style themselves. City would redeploy this style against Arsenal in December and again came away with a victory catching Arsenal with attacks started from deep and with surprising directness and speed. From the teams that played against Arsenal and Barca 6 of the same outfield players started against Spurs (plus, Sergio Aguero who was suspended for the Arsenal game but presumably would have played).
This gives us some indication of the thought process of Guardiola during the run up to the Tottenham game. The plan would be to hit hard with balls from central positions using Kevin De Bruyne’s excellent range of long passes. A lot of the responsibility for this style of play fell on City’s wingers. They were responsible both for creating chances with their pace and for closing down Tottenham’s very good ball playing defenders. Sane was particularly good at this job and was able to keep pressure on Tottenham and limit Kyle Walker’s effectiveness whilst also getting forward and scoring one of City’s goals. He performed a very similar role earlier in the season at Arsenal. Sane was well backed up by Gael Clichy and they provided a great example of the way Pep’s side was able to defend against wide attacking threats. In fact, WhoScored showed Sane and Clichy as making 4 and 3 tackles respectively, second only to Victor Wanyama. This meant City were able to turn over possession in wide areas and immediately force Spurs to work back from tough positions.
Meanwhile, in the center of the pitch City were able to effectively transition the ball forward to Silva and De Bruyne through Yaya Toure who had an impressive game and kept up an 85% passing accuracy despite making the most passes in the game at 68. This allowed City to transition the ball into more dangerous areas and gave De Bruyne the chance to try some longer through balls to Sane, Sterling and Aguero who could push Spurs back with their pace and intelligent runs. City didn’t completely abandon the idea of possession football, in fact it was a central part of their game. However, they also sped the game up when it was possible. Sometimes bypassing the play in an attempt to get the ball quickly into the space for attacking players to run at. This led to some of their most successful attacks.
For the most part City were very good and managed to go ahead through goals from De Bruyne and Sane (with more than a little help from a very poor Hugo Lloris). They neutralized a lot of Tottenham’s width and were a little unfortunate not to win a penalty after Kyle Walker’s push on Raheem Sterling after a quick break. In comparison, Tottenham had a tough day and were more than a little fortunate to come away with the win. That being said, had Hugo Lloris been on his usual game it could have been much different, such is the quality this Spur’s team have available.
In the end, it seems Pep got this one right tactically in what was a very interesting game at the Etihad. Even so, City’s defense seem not to have the personnel to succeed against the top teams with periods of pressure leading them to lose concentration and concede. They don’t look capable of organizing themselves in a cohesive back line without also losing track of attackers running at them.
After the game Pep was once again fiery with interviewers post-match. Be prepared for the continuation of “Guardiola insanity” story line until such time as Manchester City put together a good run of wins. However, City fans should be pleased with the performance. It showed an ability to adapt tactically and create chances against one of the most well organised side in the league.