Image from Mirror Sport, stats from whoscored.com
This game has become vital in the title race, but not in the way it may have been one month ago. Man City host the form team on Saturday in a bid to slow them down on their quest for Premier League glory.
Tottenham looked unplayable against West Brom on the back of a hugely impressive result against Chelsea over the Christmas period. Pochetino has found a formula and system that suits his sides strengths and they’re benefitting hugely from the changes implemented. Man City however, are falling apart under the constant tactical changes Guardiola seems to be playing with.
Now, if we assume the following, we can hopefully make some fairly accurate predictions on how the game will go:
Man City (4-2-3-1)
Zabaleta, Stones, Otamendi, Clichy
De Bruyne, Silva, Sterling
Dier, Alderweireld, Wimmer
Walker, Wanyama, Dembele, Rose
Alli, Kane, Eriksen
Now of course I’m only speculating. If these are the starting line ups, I fully expect Tottenham to be all over Man City who have gone far away from their early season style. Naturally, Wanyama and Dembele will play as a solid two midfielders with another two in front of them in Alli and Eriksen. Space in the middle of the pitch is going to be very hard to come by for Man City. The last thing Pochetino will give the City players is time on the ball. Unfortunately, knowing the stubbornness of Pep and his players, I worry they’ll fall into the same trap and play completely into Tottenham’s plan.
De Bruyne is a super talented player, but he’s wasted out wide, especially when you’re shifting him out there to get Toure into the team, who doesn’t have the work ethic of a classic Guardiola midfielder. So, what do I suggest?
Looking specifically from a Manchester City point of view, I think a few tweaks and changes in personnel will make all the difference in this crucial clash.
Firstly, my line up would be:
Zabaleta, Otamendi, Stones, Clichy
De Bruyne, Fernando, Silva,
Sterling, Aguero, Nolito
Simply, Bravo isn’t good enough. Too many goals he’s conceded I think to myself ‘could he have saved that? Would a top ‘keeper have saved that?’. Often I find myself unsure on him and frankly, if a goalkeeper doesn’t fill you with confidence he shouldn’t be near the line up. My back four is simple, it’s the best of a bad bunch. People criticise Stones but it’s Otamendi I would be targeting if I were Harry Kane. However, Otamendi plays on the front foot, he likes to intercept and Kane isn’t the quickest forward so this game could play to his strengths.
The midfield is simple: Fernando needs to be there for balance. I’d almost go for Delph because I’m a huge fan of his, but he hasn’t played enough and has had injury issues. De Bruyne and Silva need to find the limited space available and get the ball wide as quickly as possible using their creativity and skill.
Sterling and Nolito are the key to winning this game for me. Spurs are playing with two wing backs, and Man City have to have them pressed back to create space for Silva and De Bruyne. Then, and only then, can Man City start to control the game. If De Bruyne plays wide, he’ll come inside and Spurs will marshal them far too comfortably. Clichy and Zabaleta need to get forward but be clever about it. If City lose possession high up the pitch, Walker and Rose will fill the space left by the full backs very quickly, and Kane’s movement, when defending play from wider areas, becomes far harder to track and stop. Even Dele Alli has proven to be very effective in the air.
The following statistics from whoscored.com should explain the thoughts behind my tactics. I don’t think any league victory for Man City this season tops the performance they put in at Man Utd when they came out 2-1 winners. The following image shows the players average position during that game:
(average position vs Man Utd – won 2-1 away)
As we can see above, Man City went to United with a fairly flat back four, and two wingers in Sterling and Nolito who held their positions brilliantly and continued to occupy the United full backs attention at all times. This allowed Silva and De Bruyne to dictate play from all areas of the field as Pogba and Fellaini were outrun all game. Fernandinho protected the defence, and City’s attacking players were able to get up the pitch effectively.
The story is very different however when you look at their average positions against Everton in their 4-0 defeat just last weekend:
(average position vs Everton – lost 4-0 away)
As we can see here, Man City’s ‘wide players’ were far more central in this game and had little impact going forward. Zabaleta’s position, number 5, seems to suggest he was more worried about covering the space left behind by Sagna, 3, who occupied the whole right hand side by himself. In fact, the whole defensive structure looks far more out of place than it did at United.
So, this is all well and good, but why in particular is width important to beating Spurs? Spurs have played several games with the 3-4-3 formation, but there are three games I want to focus on in particular: Arsenal away, Chelsea at home and West Brom at home as well. Here’s their positioning for each game:
(average position vs West Brom – won 4-0 at home)
As we pointed out above, Man City wont find any space in the middle. Kane, Erisken, Alli, Dembele and Wanyama are all very closely packed together, and Walker and Rose are almost as high up the pitch as their forwards. However, perhaps they could afford to do that playing against West Brom, who aren’t blessed with the best midfielders in the league. So how was it different against Chelsea, who had previously won 13 games in a row?
(average position vs Chelsea – won 2-0 at home)
Well, apart from a bit more structure and balance, it’s not too different. Rose and Walker, 3 and 2, are still very high up the pitch with Erisken and Alli continuing to pack the midfield where Chelsea were light with just the two central midfielders. Again though, this can’t be too over-analysed as Chelsea also play a 3-4-3, meaning the wing-backs were possibly doing a man-to-man marking job on their rivals. Well, that being the case, Tottenham’s 1-1 draw away at Arsenal is the closest indicator we have with regards to predicting how the game will go. So once again, how did they fair with this system against Arsenal?
(average position vs Arsenal – drew 1-1 away)
This graphic is far more telling. Arsenal are an attacking team like City, who tend to play a 4-2-3-1 formation as well. Knowing this, and the form of both teams at the time, you’d expect Tottenham’s wing-backs to be far deeper, trying to deal with the threat of Iwobi and Walcott, with Eriksen and Son, 23 and 7, being far wider trying to stop the threat of the full backs. In fact, Tottenham played bravely at the Emirates and continued to get their players forward and make life difficult in the middle of the pitch for the likes of Xhaka and Ozil who love to dictate play. Rose and Walker are once again found very high up the pitch.
This is why I don’t think Tottenham will change or adapt for Man City. I believe Man City, on current form, are there for the taking and Spurs know that. This can play completely into Man City’s hands. As brilliant as Walker and Rose have been club and country over the last year, they need to be intelligent when facing any threats from wide that Man City may pose. Sterling and Nolito will cause them problems and the wing-backs will panic and drop deeper. If not, well then one of the centre backs will have to come across, and that frees up space for Aguero, De Bruyne and the opposite winger to fill the spaces being left in the box. This is where Man City will win the game, if they go on to do so.
Score Prediction: Man City 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur
I see Man City coming out flying in this game, knowing they need a result. I have to be honest though, if they don’t go back to their slick 4-3-3 formation with Silva and De Bruyne in the middle, I can’t see them winning and would put Spurs down as 2-0 winners. However, I think they will get it right this time and I expect Walker and Rose to do a lot more defending in this game than they’ve had to do for a long time.