That was the one of the most intense matches we’ve experienced all season, it’s certainly a relief that all the stress we just put ourselves through ultimately ended with a Manchester City victory and 3 points on the road against a top-six side. City battled their way to a 1 - 0 win against Tottenham on Monday. This match was forced to be played on a Wembley Stadium pitch about 30 hours after an NFL game because Tottenham hired Wreck It Ralph and this kid to build their new stadium.
With the new stadium behind schedule, Tottenham had to extend their rent into Wembley, which had been scheduling events there expecting them to be gone. As a result, you get rescheduled matches like this where the field is still painted with the yardage lines of the NFL game and is of the quality of a cow pasture. How much a pitch like this can impact the game is difficult to quantify. You’d expect the ball to roll slower in these conditions and both teams made passes without enough pace to reach their target before an opponent could intercept. This game had a choppy flow to it, and the state of the pitch was likely a large reason why.
The field may also have affected the tactical approach of both team’s managers. Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino share a similar philosophy on how the game should be played. This led to a war of attrition with City and Tottenham generally trying to do the same thing. Both teams are expected to implement a press up the field with varying degrees of aggression, depending on the opponent and match circumstances. Guardiola and Pochettino each turned up their pressure to as high as it can get without becoming irresponsible and chaotic.
With the pitch as it were, the ball was bouncing around more than you would normally see it and players need just a half second longer to settle. Otherwise, playing a ball first touch in these conditions becomes higher risk as well. Both of these variables combined to take two already-effective presses, and make them even more dangerous to turn the ball over at any moment. This resulted in Manchester City losing possession 26 times while Tottenham did so 24 times, higher than normal numbers for both sides.
During buildup, the midfield was intentionally clogged, funneling possession out wide onto the flanks, extending the path to goal and thus increasing the chance a mistake is made along the way. Not to mention, both sides normally like to work through their defensive midfielders to start the attack, Fernandinho for City and Eric Dier and Moussa Dembele for Tottenham, but struggled to do so Monday. Dier and Dembele were forced to venture way out of position to pick up possession from their backline, breaking up the flow in a normally fluid team. Dier’s heat map, shown below, illustrates the movement around the pitch required to get touches on the ball.
City did a much better job of getting Fernandinho touches in central spaces. They are just so intelligent on how to pull defenders out of position and then have other teammates flash into the space left behind. David Silva, who was usually marked closely by a Tottenham defensive midfielder, would regularly make a short horizontal run out wide, allowing Sergio Aguero to drop into the midfield. If he was able to pull either Davinson Sanchez or Toby Alderweireld with him, the City wingers would have a hole in the back line to run into. Alternatively, if a Tottenham attacker closed down, Fernandinho could advance forward for an easy drop off pass with room to run.
City were forced out wide on many occasions however, but Pep is more than happy to take what the defense is giving him. Bernardo Silva, nominally operating as a central attacking midfielder, essentially played as a second right winger alongside Riyad Mahrez. This had a two-fold advantage. First of all, overloading two creative forces in addition to the pace of Kyle Walker gave City an opportunity to exploit the wide spaces. But perhaps more importantly, this pinned Lucas Moura back for much of the game, and he was more or less invisible as a result.
It was in those quick passing sequences, into and out of tight spaces, that made this game so tense, regardless of who was in possession. With the nature of the press on both sides, one short pass could unlock the entire defense and open up a dangerous scoring opportunity. This is part of why the match was so physical, when that unlocking pass was made, you saw a lot of challenges to prevent the attack from developing in the final third. But ultimately, Manchester City won this game and were the better of the two teams because they are better at that type of passing buildup than maybe any team in the world.
It is interesting to note Pep Guardiola’s substitutions here. His two normal time subs were Kevin De Bruyne and Vincent Kompany for his two most advanced attackers, Sergio Aguero and David Silva. This pushed John Stones into the midfield and left City without a dedicated striker, but a mob of midfielders. Doing so further clogged up the midfield and forced Tottenham to play in balls over the top with strong aerial challengers to make clearances. Similar to the Liverpool match, Pep showed a pragmatism here that is great to see.
The sense that I get from the post game coverage is that this was an overall even match, with City getting the victory because they took advantage of a horrible mistake by Kieran Trippier. The Eric Lamela miss late in the game reinforces this idea considering he probably should have finished that chance and it may end 1 - 1. But the underlying numbers do not back this up. Instead, the statistics prove how much better Manchester City were than Tottenham. Pep Guardiola’s side finished with an expected goals (xG) tally of 2.24, while Tottenham had only 0.43 xG (0.36 of which coming from the Lamela chance). Perhaps the lack of a consistent flow muddied the perception of this match, but Manchester City deserved this victory and appear to rounding into form.