Tactical Focus – Manchester City v Tottenham

If you take last weekend as evidence then the result of this match should be in no doubt. Whilst Spurs overwhelmed an otherwise impressive West Bromwich Albion side with an attacking performance that matches anything else we saw in Europe, we also saw Manchester City capitulate away at Everton on their way to a 4-0 defeat.

In both instances the results are somewhat less instructive than the performances from the two sides. Under Mauricio Pochettino Spurs were incredible going forwards. They created overloads in various areas of the final third and pulled the much vaunted West Brom defensive structure to pieces. \

More than that, though, they attacked and moved as a unit with the wide defenders in their new back three system taking turns to stride towards the final third and play through passes to attacking players.

More tellingly, though, the players all played with a smile on their face. Incredible attacking football played by players who love playing for their coach? Shouldn’t that be Pep Guardiola and Manchester City instead of Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs?

The realisation seems to have hit Guardiola in recent weeks that the playing staff at City are not at the level he was expecting. Every week we are treated to soundbites from the Spanish coach reasserting that he will not change his style and that things will click.

But even the most ardent of Pep fans are now aware that City need to undergo significant investment over the next three transfer windows in order to facilitate the style of football that Guardiola expects.

What can we expect see from this match, though?

City need to stretch the width of the final third

We can (almost) safely assume that Spurs will stick with their newly adopted 3-4-2-1 system that we have seen them use to great effect in recent weeks. Going forward this system offers great angles and overloads that will test even the best defensive structures in Europe, especially if Dele Alli and Harry Kane can continue to connect with devastating effect.

Defensively there are still issues and this is even more the case with the news that Jan Vertonghen is ruled out of the match with ankle ligament damage. The key to defeating this Spurs side in this system is to force the wing-backs in to defensive positions and prevent the wide defenders from dictating the play going forward.

To achieve this City will have to be brave and commit to leaving their wide forwards in advanced areas of the pitch, even in their defensive phase. This would force Spurs to react in one of two ways. Either they hold their wing-backs in deeper areas to account for the dangers in the wide areas, should City be able to counter attack.

Alternatively, Spurs could hold the wide defenders back to mark the wide forwards. The latter is the more likely given the importance of Walker and Rose in the attacking phase. This would, however, mean Spurs marking three-on-three at the back and leaving themselves open to central overloads should City attack quickly.

Spurs must overload space between City’s midfield and defence

One of the brightest aspects of Spurs’ play since their switch of system has been the connection formed by Deli Alli, Harry Kane and Christian Eriksen. The latter has taken on a more central role in the new system, having previously found himself isolated in the wide left area. This change of role for the Denmark international has seen him rediscover the form that made him such a hot commodity at Ajax.

City have struggled in recent weeks with their defensive shape, which was clearly evident by the 4-0 defeat to Everton. The key in attacking this City side lies in exploiting the central area and in particular the spaces in and around the deepest lying midfielder – usually Fernandinho – who can find himself isolated at times.

Should Eriksen and Kane be able to take possession of the ball in these areas then Spurs will be able to operate from an advanced platform, with runners from both central and wide areas, and the movement and intelligence of Harry Kane could be the key factor in deciding this match.

City struggle to adequately support this area of the field in their defensive phase, with the orthodox central midfielders either too attacking (Silva) or too lazy (Toure) to effect play in this area. This can lead to Fernandinho being exposed again and again.

Should the advanced platform be created then it allows Spurs to dictate play and control the flow of the match.

Will Guardiola finally choose to switch the system or even invert his fullbacks to counter this specific threat? So far during this poor run of form, we have seen little sign of the tactical flexibility that Guardiola is famed for. Whatever happens, this is a fascinating match up between two of the most tactically intelligent coaches of the modern game.


If you take both sides in isolation then it is clear and somewhat unexpected, given the level of City’s investment in recent years, that Spurs have the stronger first team squad.

How will that translate in the game, though? There is no doubt that confidence can play a role within the professional game and it is certain that City will still be hurting from their humbling defeat last weekend.

How big a part will these psychological issues play in the game plan from Guardiola? You have have to feel that it is imperative that City score first to give them a foothold in the game.

Otherwise, should Spurs take the lead, we may see the fragile confidence of this City side fall apart.