With Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool already humbled by Pep Guardiola’s side, it’s now down to Tottenham Hotspur to try and make the Premier League title race genuinely competitive once again. Manchester City are eleven points clear of the rest of the pack and their scintillating form shows little signs of relenting, but Spurs can take some comfort from the fact they sealed a point at the Etihad Stadium last season. So, will City’s record-setting run of consecutive wins finally come to an end this weekend, or will Tottenham suffer the same fate as the rest of their big six rivals? This week’s experts, Football FanCast’s City-loving Chris McMullan and The Sun’s Tottenham-supporting Sean Cook, share their thoughts and predictions ahead of the 5.30pm kickoff on Saturday.
Tottenham’s recent record against City is actually incredibly strong – three wins from their last four meetings, the other being a 2-2 draw at the Etihad Stadium last season. Of course, much has changed at both clubs since then and City’s performances have elevated to a considerably higher level. Are there lessons to be learned from those poor results, or are City simply a completely different animal these days?
CM: “I think both things are true. City are no doubt a different animal, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that this fixture last season – Spurs at the Etihad Stadium – was the start of the City we see today, and so there are certainly lessons to learn. Both Tottenham games last season seemed to book-end a period of metamorphosis, in fact. When Guardiola lost his first game in English football at White Hart Lane in October, it started a run of three wins in nine games. They then curled up into some sort of a transformational chrysalis, and when they came out, it was against Spurs on the back of a 4-0 humiliation at Everton. They were a different team. That game laid it all out, and it was a real balls-on-the-table moment for Guardiola, who went out to attack the form team in the league and should have won the game. City haven’t looked back since then either, having lost only once in the league.”
It’s impossible to ignore how dominant City have been so far this season, dropping just two points in the Premier League, averaging more than three goals per game and currently amid a run that will set a new record of consecutive wins in the English top flight. Has Guardiola created a near-perfect side, or are there aspects of City’s game that still concern you?
CM:“Calling them perfect would be going too far, but they’re certainly reaching a level that English football hasn’t seen in a long time. That doesn’t mean they don’t have any weaknesses, though. People will point to the back four as potential fertile ground for the opposition to get at, and although it would take a very brave team to take City on at their own game, any side with 75% of their back-four made up of Eliaquim Mangala, Nicolas Otamenti and Fabian Delph – as was the case at Swansea on Wednesday night – will struggle to inspire full confidence.
“At the other end, City have been less convincing than usual in recent weeks, though they do appear to be back on track after the 4-0 victory over Swansea. Sergio Aguero bagged his first goal in seven league games – his last was a penalty against Arsenal – and Gabriel Jesus still hasn’t scored in six. Guardiola’s side have had to rely on less likely sources: for two games in a row, at home to West Ham and away to Manchester United, City won 2-1 with goals from David Silva and Nicolas Otamendi. On the other hand, grinding out such results is impressive in itself. It would be utter stupidity to call City’s attack a ‘weakness’, but perhaps the fun and frolics of the first few months are over and now it’s all about getting the job done.”
And from a Tottenham perspective, are there any weaknesses Mauricio Pochettino should be looking to exploit this weekend?
SC: “It’s quite difficult to pinpoint any issues with Guardiola’s side. Their squad depth is frightening and rarely have they put a foot wrong this season. We need to make sure we frustrate them as much as possible. If they go for a long spell without a sniff at goal, they’ll become frustrated and rush their play. That’s when we can capitalise. It won’t be easy but if Spurs can keep tight at the back, City may not be able to break the deadlock.”
Regardless of how well Spurs performed at the Etihad Stadium last season and what underlying weaknesses City may well have, Pochettino’s side have really struggled in the big games this term. Their only three points against big six rivals came in a demolition of Liverpool at Wembley and Pochettino’s overall record against top teams on the road is infamously poor. What needs to change to ensure Spurs take at least a point from the Etihad Stadium?
SC: “It’s no secret that Pochettino’s record against bigger sides away from home has been a major concern for a club attempting to mount a title push. Very few times can I recall Tottenham being completely dominated in these big fixtures though, with goals conceded often through our own individual errors. This was the case at Old Trafford just last month. We’ve just got to make sure we get the basics right. Win every header, get to the ball first and make sure our passing is flawless. Any goals will come on the break, but otherwise we need to be at our best all over the pitch.”
Perhaps the biggest selection dilemma Pochettino faces this weekend centres around formations. The Argentine has shown the most tactical variety this season of his time in England, but a surprise defeat to Leicester saw him revert back to type – fielding Tottenham in the tried and trusted 4-2-3-1 setup of his first few campaigns at White Hart Lane in the four fixtures since. How should Pochettino set up his side this Saturday?
SC:“Given the form City are in, Spurs must be at their very best defensively on Saturday. Being without Davinson Sanchez and Toby Alderweireld brings difficulties, but Pochettino’s side have proven they can cope without two of their best. I would personally opt for the 4-2-3-1 system with a back four of: Kieran Trippier, Eric Dier, Jan Vertonghen and Ben Davies. Although Aurier and Rose bring an attacking quality to the side, it’s easy to anticipate that the bulk of our game will see us defending deep and this is the personnel best equipped to do so.”
While Tottenham’s primary focus will inevitably be defending on Saturday, it shouldn’t be forgotten that they boast some fine attacking talents as well. Harry Kane is the Premier League’s second-top goalscorer, Dele Alli is one of Europe’s most sought-after youngsters and Christian Eriksen has created the same number of chances per match as David Silva this season. Which Tottenham players could cause City the most damage this weekend?
CM: “The obvious answer is Harry Kane, of course, but as frightening a prospect as he is, I don’t actually think this is where the game will be won and lost. Since his arrival in England, I’ve been impressed with Serge Aurier who appeared a bit of a loose cannon at PSG. He is a wonderful marauding wing-back who, if he plays, will really give Fabian Delph a test of his ability as a left-back. His athleticism and technique coupled with the pace of the in-form Heung-Min Son could force City into being a little bit more cautious in their build-up play in order to limit Spurs’ chances on the counter. If that happens, the attack could lose a bit of its potency.”
And finally lads, let’s hear your score predictions…
CM: 1-1. I think this is where the winning run will come to an end – but with an 11-point lead, City don’t need to fear draws against top-six rivals. Playing the percentages from here on in should be enough – though try telling that to Guardiola.
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