Siyang Xu provides a tactical analysis of the Premier League game that finished Manchester City 4-1 Tottenham
Pep Guardiola guided his Manchester City side to their sixteenth consecutive victory in the Premier League with a dominant victory over Tottenham Hotspur. Mauricio Pochettino’s men were seen by many as the league’s best hope of ending City’s dominant run, but Spurs ended up leaving the Etihad Stadium on Saturday on the wrong end of a 4-1 scoreline, having been totally outclassed across all four phases of the game.
Manchester City: Ederson, Walker, Otamendi, Mangala, Delph, De Bruyne, Fernandinho, Gundogan, Sterling, Aguero, Sane.
Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris, Trippier, Dier, Vertonghen, Rose, Dembele, Winks, Eriksen, Alli, Son, Kane.
City play through Spurs’ press
One key feature of the match was Tottenham’s inability to contain City’s build up from the back, thus allowing the hosts to safely progress the ball up the pitch consistently. Pochettino elected to press high, unlike most of City’s recent opponents who allowed them to play up to the halfway line before engaging (similar to a half-court press in basketball). Although this strategy forced the hosts into having less stable control of the ball, the quality of the City players allowed them to thrive in the tight, pressurised situations that ensued and saw them break through Tottenham’s press throughout the game.
Pochettino’s strategy was to press from a 4-3-1-2 (or 4-4-2 diamond depending on your preference) shape and use Kane, Son and Alli to press high against City’s first line of their two centre backs and Fernandinho dropping in. Behind them, the three midfielders would look to split coverage of the four City players on the second line and adjust their positions to cover the three closest players depending on where the ball was played.
Although a solid tactic in theory, City’s clever movement enabled them to exploit the 4vs3 situation they had in the middle through smart positioning of the full backs to create the passing lane to the free man. The first option was to have Walker drop into a deep position. In order to maintain access to press him, Winks would often step forward, and when this happened, De Bruyne would smartly time his movement into the resulting space behind Winks so that he could receive before Dembele could shift over to cover him. If Winks did not step up, Walker would simply drive forward with the ball, forcing a Tottenham player to close him down before then looking for the resulting free man. This principle of attracting the press to create space is prominent throughout City’s attacking play.
On the other side, Delph was utilised slightly differently. As he has sporadically done throughout the season, Delph came inside into an ‘inverted full back’ position to open up a passing lane from the goalkeeper. Simultaneously, De Bruyne (or Gundogan, as City swapped the positioning of the two throughout the match), would pull into a very wide position. With only three players in the midfield line, Tottenham had less coverage of these wide areas, and De Bruyne was able to receive with enough time to get his head up and look for a forward pass.
Another method through which City looked to build was to have Gundogan dropping deeper to create a free man on the first line and collect the ball from the goalkeeper. A Tottenham midfielder would be reluctant to follow (for the same reasons detailed previously – they would leave a man free in midfield), allowing Gundogan to receive and turn. From there, the German could either play out to the full back into an area where Spurs had weak coverage, or try to play straight to Aguero who would then set the ball back for the onrushing De Bruyne.
When the option of playing short was not available to City, Guardiola was able to rely on the immense range and accuracy of Ederson’s passing to safely transfer the ball forwards. The most common pass was a chipped ball to the full back, and although Spurs would quickly shift over to press the receiver, he was always quickly supported by team mates in the near vicinity who he could use to make quick combinations and play out of the pressure.
Alternatively, when Spurs pushed one of their full backs up to press man-for-man later on in the game, City used the high positioning of their front three to stretch Tottenham vertically. This left huge spaces within the Tottenham shape, and Ederson was able to dink the ball into the gap for Sane or Aguero to control, taking out six or seven Tottenham players in the process. When teams press high, they naturally leave space behind and whilst this is usually a trade-off that is accepted due to the difficulty in picking out long passes, Ederson’s unique ability to kick the length of the field gives City a multifaceted weapon in build up like no other that raises the question of how any team can successfully press City high up the field.
Despite this, Tottenham were able to drop back into a low block pretty effectively when City developed possession into their half. They sat in a 4-3-1-2 shape which later changed to a 4-4-1-1 when Pochettino switched formations mid-way through the first half and maintained compactness well, especially when shifting to the sides. This limited the space with which City had to play, but they were still able to create chances through the dribbling ability of their two wingers, with Sane in particular giving Trippier a hard time. As usual, City displayed many of the attacking principles Guardiola has become known for – third man runs, laying the ball off to a forward-facing player and the use of width, to name a few – and a whole other article could be written about them, but for the sake of brevity they will not be discussed here.
City press nullifies Spurs’ build up
Conversely, City were very effective with their high press against Tottenham’s build up, further solidifying their control over the match. Guardiola did not let Tottenham have comfortable possession, even at the back, and instructed his players to constantly harass Spurs on the ball. One pressing trigger was a sideways pass from one centre back to the other, often forced by Aguero applying pressure to the ball. This acted as a signal for the near #8 to step up to press the receiving centre back. The other #8 would move to mark the pivot (Dembele) whilst Sane would split Tottenham’s near #8 and near full back so that he had access to press both of them, killing two birds with one stone. If Sane was not able to cover both, for example if the full back moved out of his cover shadow, Delph would step up to mark him, happy to take the risk of leaving less men on the defensive line because the immense pressure City was placing on the ball carrier at all times meant it would be very difficult to pick an accurate pass in behind.
City were very proactive with their pressing and regularly followed through when Tottenham played the ball backwards, using their cover shadows to block the man they were leaving free. By following through and pressing the receiver so quickly and aggressively, City were able to cut the playing angle for the Tottenham player immediately, making it impossible to play forwards due to the wider angle of coverage of their cover shadow.
If they had not followed through and merely held their position to block passing lanes, it would’ve been easier for the Tottenham midfielder to escape the cover shadow with simple lateral movements and the centre back would have been in control of the situation, rather than the presser. This would’ve given the centre back the option of stepping forward with the ball, provoking the press and creating space, and Spurs would’ve been able to dictate the game in the way they would’ve liked. However, by being proactive, City took that control away from them and were instead able to determine Tottenham’s actions.
This constant pressure stopped Tottenham from settling into a rhythm and forced multiple mistakes in possession, including from Lloris who had a very shaky game with his feet despite usually possessing plenty of composure on the ball.
When they lost the ball, City were equally aggressive with their counterpress, with two or three players in near vicinity to the ball immediately swarming the ball carrier, closing down the space around him before he could get his head up to play. This contained most of Tottenham’s counter attacks pretty well, and even when Spurs were able to break the immediate press, City’s last line did a good job of closing down the angles of the through balls so that Tottenham were always forced wide with their next pass.
For all City’s excellent play in both the defensive and offensive phases, the crucial second and third goals both came in attacking transition, where City were yet again excellent. They used the pace of Sane and Sterling to stretch the pitch, pulling Tottenham’s defence back and creating space for De Bruyne to run into. The timing and positioning of Sane’s runs was particularly excellent, utilising blind side movement at exactly the right moment to gain a dynamic advantage over his defender and get in behind the defensive line. De Bruyne was key in these transitions, often winning the ball, holding off Spurs’ counterpress with his press-resistance and starting the counter with an excellent forward pass.
Manchester City produced one of the most complete performances of Guardiola’s reign in which they were dominant in all phases of the game. Led by De Bruyne’s incredibly energetic performance, City chased and harried Tottenham all over the park and stopped their opponents from getting a strong foothold on the game. On the other hand, City seemed to always have a solution to Tottenham’s pressing, regardless of whether they pressed man-for-man, zonally or dropped off. The difference in the organisation of pressing was ultimately the key distinction between the two sides, and hence why it was the focus of this article, but there were an endless number of tactical features throughout the match not mentioned here that could each be analysed with their own article. With the title now surely secured, all eyes are on how long City can continue their winning run and whether they can break Chelsea’s record points tally of 95.
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