Tottenham triumphed at the Etihad stadium on Sunday afternoon with a 2-1 win that saw them reclaim 2nd place from their North London rivals who were still savouring their last gasp win over 10-man Leicester. Their offensive and defensive structure was central to their victory and was in sharp contrast to City who lacked anything of the sort, particularly defensively. Although Spurs rode their luck at times as they held on towards the end, the match demonstrated the benefits of a cohesive tactical system over talented individuals alone.
City’s defensive passivity
For most of the first half City sat behind the ball in a very passive 4-4-2 block and there were several issues within this system. As they opted to defend passively they lacked defensive access meaning Spurs were largely free to build-up and circulate possession as they saw fit. This would not be that much of a problem if City had optimal compactness and distances between their players which would in turn allow them to restrict options for Spurs in their construction. However City’s compactness was typically poor which meant Spurs were free to build-up and advance largely unopposed and could gain access to dangerous areas on several occasions.
For much of the game City’s wingers were concerned with Spurs’ full-backs and thus detached themselves from the midfield chain which meant City lacked control of the half spaces and Tottenham’s central roaming wide players were often available to receive dangerous passes between the lines. On the occasions where City’s wingers joined the midfield line and left Spurs full-backs City’s lack of pressure on the ball-carrier meant Tottenham could exploit the under loaded side of City’s defence with switch passes. With a better structure around the switch Spurs could easily have created more threatening offensive situations such as 2v1 situations. Furthermore with an increased diagonal passing orientation Spurs could have better exploited City’s lack of control of the half spaces, with a strategically more valuable switching game, from where they would have various attacking options and could thus be quite unpredictable.
In the moments where City did attempt to press (often in the phases after losing possession) they had very little co-ordination and poor compactness both vertically and horizontally which made their press easily exploitable. Below is a scene from the 13th minute where a brilliant pass from Wimmer finds Alli, City had a foul from Fernando to thank for that situation not developing further.
Despite City’s severe defensive issues Tottenham struggled to create chances and this was partly due to a lack of patience in their final 3rd approach which meant that opportunities to create more dangerous situations were passed up as they elected for early crosses. Spurs utilised many cross field switches which, due to the distance the ball had to travel, gave City time to shift and prepare themselves for the next action. Having said that these passes are not completely worthless as they could be part of a general strategy to destabilise opponents with ball circulation, and if Spurs patiently worked their way back in field from these switches they could have taken advantage of City’s sluggish shifting.
City’s offensive transitions
With City’s passive defensive approach Spurs were largely in control of possession and territory and despite having a fair bit of space in their offensive transitions City failed to trouble Spurs with their counters. Part of the problem was their approach to these transitions, they adopted a very individual approach (partly due to a lack of connections in their defensive strategy) whereby the ball carrier was expected to carry the ball long distances often without supporting players until the very final 3rd. However this had two major connected issues, firstly it was a very predictable approach Spurs found it relatively easy to anticipate and control as the ball carrier had one major option which was to dribble (there are of course different ways to do this).
Secondly due to the aforementioned predictability Spurs found it easy to isolate the ball carrier and marshal them into harmless areas with several corners and throw-ins a frequently occurring result. A far more dangerous approach would have been one utilising quick combinations between players and moving forward together, the rapid ball relocations would have required several different reactions from Spurs’ transition defence which would have been more challenging.
While City started the 2nd half in quite a similar fashion they were stung into action by a harshly awarded penalty that gave Spurs the lead. This momentum shift was the result of a number of things mainly an increased intensity in City’s work off the ball and a lack of composure in the face of this pressure from Spurs which meant they cleared the ball long and handed over possession frequently.
It was now Spurs’ turn to spend large periods behind the ball and they showed a greater willingness to press the ball-carrier in an attempt to cause possession regains by hurrying City’s actions on the ball. In comparison to City Spurs were well organised however their defensive system was also far from perfect and on various occasions they made isolated individual attempts to press which, far from helping them restrict and control City’s circulation, opened gaps for City to exploit with their equaliser being a good example of this working against them.
Where does this leave them?
With the leaders Leicester losing at the death at the Emirates City’s loss meant they remained 6 points off the unlikely leaders. More significantly though they lost ground on Tottenham and Arsenal and they will need to put a good run of form together to trouble those above them in the title race. Having said this they should not be ruled out (as history has shown us) and being the contenders with the most experience of a title race may come to their advantage.
If Leicester were not taken seriously in their title bid before last week’s win at the Etihad they certainly have been after it and the situation seems similar for Tottenham with many declaring this victory evidence of their title credentials. Europa League commitments will test the depth of Pochettino’s squad and a tie with Sousa’s Fiorentina poses a serious threat to their continued participation (which in all honesty may not be a bad thing). The fact that Tottenham and Leicester are competing with Arsenal and City for the title despite largely inferior individuals shows just how important it is to have a cohesive and strong tactical system.
The game itself was quite poor on a tactical level despite it featuring two of the country’s best four sides at the moment which is indicative of the woeful standards on display in the Premier League. This was particularly due to City’s defensive structure (if I can call it that) which is simply terrible and would need vast improving if they are to progress to the latter stages of the Champions League. Contrary to some common opinions Pep Guardiola has much work to do with this team in order to reach his and the club’s ambitions.
Originally published on Outside of the boot