Manchester City fans were given a slice of humble pie as a physically domineering Tottenham Hotspur side ran rampant at White Hart Lane, and boy did it not taste good. Let’s dive into what left such a bad taste in our mouths.
Press With a Purpose
City entered the game off the back of a relatively disappointing draw against Champions League minnows, Celtic, with many suggesting Brendan Rogers’ men offered a blueprint as to how one could stop this newly revitalized City team. Many knew that pressuring Guardiola’s possession dependent system could garner some results, but most teams were either ill-equipped or not able to implement a successfully disruptive high press without leaving themselves open at the back; enter Tottenham.
Much of Guardiola’s philosophy operates under the ideals of juego de posicion or positional play. Keeping the intended shape and passing out of situations to fully utilize the advantages of keeping the aforementioned shape is what Guardiola’s teams do at their best. Tottenham used Guardiola’s insistence on spacing to their advantage, overloading the player in possession and blocking every nearby passing lane. One might imagine that this would leave Spurs open at the back, and at times it did, but the purpose of the high press was to force the sky blues into sending it long. Tottenham’s more physically adept team benefitted from the increased amount of aerial battles because of the diminutive nature of the City team. Bar the Fern Bros- Fernando and Fernandinho- City lack a certain degree of steel in their team. Increasing the probability of 50-50’s and general duels on the field gave Pochettino’s men a better chance of keeping possession away from the blues. The press was high, relentless, and intelligent.
The Big Bad Bullies
The Lilywhites’ personnel emphasized the focus on physicality; an area where City couldn't win. Son Hueng-Min, Dele Alli, Moussa Sissoko (shocking, I know), Victor Wanyama, and Erik Lamela were all perfect candidates for an energetic pack of athletes that sought to dominate the midfield area. The most striking tactic was one Pochetino seemed to rip right out of Guardiola’s book. Much like City’s ability to bait teams into pressing them high up the field only to pass out of the pressure, Spurs baited City into moving the ball into open spaces in central midfield so they could more easily win possession with their superior numbers and intelligent, physical press. The lack of a central striker gave them another midfielder to work with, making it primarily Son, Alli, Sissoko, Wanyama, Lamela, and to some extent Eriksen, against Fernando, Fernandinho and occasionally Silva.
The reason City lacked numbers in the middle of the park is because, contrary to popular belief, they don’t often flood that area with players. Under Guardiola, the Mancunians play a front five with two midfielders sitting deep. The dynamic movement of the midfielders within the formation towards and away from the ball serves to facilitate possession in both wide and central areas through passing triangles. Without a solid hold of possession, the front five keeping their shape left the three midfielders completely isolated and overrun.
The flanks were also devoid of any respite for the frazzled City team due to the spectacular performance of the home team's fullbacks. Guardiola’s positioning seeks to highlight and isolate the attacking wide players to give them the best chance of beating their defender, however, with the exception of Leroy Sané, City’s wingers seem to struggle against fullbacks who are as quick and able to cope with a trick as they are. Sterling, in particular, has struggled with fullbacks that can match his pace, see his performance against Luke Shaw, but Jesus Navas, being the one-trick pony that he is, also had a difficult time.
In essence, none of what Guardiola sought to implement came to fruition because Tottenham forced City out of their comfort zone and into theirs. They disrupted the passing, made every situation in possession brief and uncomfortable, and won possession in dangerous positions. It's quite clear that in any contest in which City are forced to compete in open and athletically challenging circumstances, the sky blues will come out the lesser team. For Manchester City moving forward, it's a matter of finding a way to implement Guardiola's style in any situation. At Barcelona, the fresh-faced Catalan manager had the ultimate key to the press, or really any tactic for that matter, in Lionel Messi.
Messi, to the dismay of many of our own teams, has the mercurial ability to dribble out of tight situations in which many opposing players try to close him down, effectively nullifying and exposing the press. Unfortunately, the only blue shirt the diminutive Argentine is dawning these days is Argentina’s, and even that is a strenuous relationship. Whatever Guardiola’s plan is to beat what is clearly a very effective tactic against his preferred style of play, must come soon, as the Premier League sharks are not often far off a scent, and City are gushing.