This weekend’s Premier League fixtures look a little flat until you realise that sandwiched right in the middle there is the small matter of Spurs travelling to Manchester City, which is our Fixture In Focus here at Football FanCast.
To say the two teams enter this game in different runs of form would be an understatement, with Mauricio Pochettino’s Lilywhites riding high on six back-to-back league wins, while Pep Guardiola has conceded title defeat – publicly, at least – after two losses on Merseyside since New Year’s Eve.
However, that’s not to say this game is a foregone conclusion, with big matches enough to bring the best out of under-performing stars and overawe players performing above their true ability. With that in mind, a Man City victory is by no means out of the question, and this how-to-guide may leave them ideally placed to achieve it…
Man City just need to take a step back and re-assess everything after that loss at Everton. Guardiola, although no one can doubt his tactical prowess, has chopped and changed to such an extent all season that no level of fluency has been kept in the Citizens’ game and results have, as a consequence, fluctuated.
For this game, and the next few, we think the Spaniard should take it back to basics and concentrate on making his team solid and hard to break down. With the attacking talent he has at his disposal, chances and goals should still come, but for now the priority has to be to stop the knife piecing his butter-like defence.
On that front, 4-1-4-1 seems logical and should offer the centre-backs protection. Starting at the back, John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi have to feature, despite the former’s woes at Everton, with full-backs either side that will support them defensively. There are question marks surrounding all of City’s options on the flanks at the back, but Aleksandar Kolarov and Bacary Sagna may be the best of a bad bunch.
Just in front of them, Pablo Zabaleta is the only option to hold with Fernandinho and Fernando both missing and Yaya Toure far from suited to occupying the zone alone. The Argentine may not boast the mobility he had when he emerged as a cult hero at the Etihad Stadium, but he can read the game well and lean on his experience. The aforementioned Toure and David Silva should slot in just ahead of him, offering a mix of creativity and brute force that may be enough to disrupt Spurs’ fluency in the middle.
On the flanks Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling will be key, with the pair vital in making the ball stick in the final third. Sergio Aguero, who will almost certainly start up top, is an excellent marksman, but he can be made to look isolated without the correct support, so it’s essential the Anglo-Belgian duo get around him when City are in possession and bust a gut to move forward on the counter-attack.
With Jan Vertonghen injured, Spurs, who have been using a back three of late, have a decision to make. Go four at the back and they will almost certainly be pairing Eric Dier and Toby Alderweireld, who have looked shaky together on occasion, while a three-man set-up will see the aforementioned pair accompanied by Welshman Ben Davies, who is primarily a full-back.
Although individually they are all good defensive players, collectively they could be vulnerable to being dragged out of position, especially by a forward like Aguero. Sterling and De Bruyne may be able to exploit the space wing-backs Danny Rose and Kyle Walker will, at some point, leave, so if they can pull one of the central threesome towards them, Aguero is, in theory, the ideal man to nip and exploit the space.
With six goals in his last four games, Kane will be licking his lips at the prospect of facing a Man City defence that, to put it kindly, is woefully out-of-form. Stones, although a very good footballer, is not a ‘defence-first’ centre-back, and with Kane very much old-school in the way he attacks, this looks like the sort of mismatch that favours the striker.
How do City top him, then? Well, this is easier said than done, and few teams have been able to silence the Englishman across 90 minutes since his return from injury. The best approach might well be to cut off the service, meaning the central midfielders will have to track both Alli and Eriksen, while the wide-men will be required to support their full-backs in ensuring Walker and Rose are not allowed to drive to the byline and deliver crosses.
Yep, ‘Pab Zab’ could be the key man. The 32-year-old is not the force he was a few seasons ago, but he still has enough in the tank to influence a big game, and with no other holding midfielders available to Guardiola, he will need to be at his best as the screen, which is essential in a 4-1-4-1 set-up. Zabaleta won’t be asked to get forward, but he will be tasked with disrupting Spurs’ play in the final third and cutting the supply to Kane by blocking passing lanes and robbing Eriksen and Alli of the ball.
If he’s supported effectively by those around him, it could work, but if not, his lack of mobility will be there for all to see.