Highly anticipated clash between last two undefeated teams took place in London where Tottenham managed to beat Manchester City and remain the only team without a loss. Victory was accompanied with a clean sheet and exposed Guardiola’s worrying weakness in defensive line which is still far off the quality needed to keep possession he would like.
The only worry Mauricio Pochettino had prior to the match at White Hart Lane was injury to Hary Kane and his replacement. In the end he opted for highly energetic Heung-Min and later we will see why. On the other side, Guardiola needed to go without arguably the best player Kevin De Bruyne and Nolito. Catalan mastermind had to adopt his game plan for match against a team that conceded only 3 goals in six matches and none of them from open play.
Without De Bruyne at disposition, Guardiola looked for more cautious approach with two defensive minded midfielders. Fernando started in line with Silva but rarely ventured forward while Fernandinho was sitting much deeper. Fernando had a task to shield the defence despite starting higher up the pitch than Fernandinho who had to connect the defence and midfield often overlapping Fernando.
Using two strong defensive minded midfielders was a sound plan against Tottenham, however, the match turned on its head quite quickly for the visitors.
Both teams came on the pitch with an idea to close the opposition as high as possible. If you ask Guardiola, that is his standard plan wherever he plays. Pochettino, on the other hand, could have opted for more passive approach but that would mean conceding space to City and relying more on luck not to concede a goal throughout 90 minutes.
Therefore, also Pochettino went for an active attempt to obstruct City’s transition into the middle third. On one side if executed well that would stifle Guardiola’s team going forward and open chances for Spurs. As game progressed, it was evident Tottenham was focused on closing down and seeking chances mainly from lose balls or turnovers that pressing would provide high up the pitch. As Juergen Klopp recently said, “there is no better play maker than high press. You win ball high up field and need only one pass to break on goal”.
To be honest, both teams were doing well pressing the opposition, however, it was Tottenham that made the breakthrough in 9th minute.
Above you can see the whole game in one frame. Guardiola’s positioning game is obvious as his players are well spaced and responsible to take care of the ball and get it through the midfield into consolidation and controlled attack. Two centre backs are well apart making it difficult for opposition to close them down and same is valid for midfielders Fernando, Fernandinho and Silva. Three attackers are also spread out to keep the distances between the opposition bigger in order to exploit that space.
The principle of spacing out the players on the pitch in order to force the opposition to do the same is crucial to the way how Guardiola wants his teams to play. However, to make it work, most important is his defensive line and the goalkeeper. If those players don’t have technical ability to pass and control the ball under pressure, distances between his players become liability instead of strength and his whole idea doesn’t work.
Above you can see the same frame from the Tottenham perspective which tells the story how and why they won the game. First, Pochettino went for very high defensive line to compress the space three City midfielders can operate in at risk of leaving the space behind. However, Guardiola doesn’t like long aimless clearances so that wasn’t really a risk.
To cut off the transition, Tottenham used all of their six front players. Offensive midfielder, in this case Eriksen, had to shift ball side and help close down the ball carrier. Above you see him rushing to help Wanyama who tackles Fernandinho which springs a quick counter that puts Tottenham in lead.
The intensity and teamwork in these defensive situations resulted in 11 turnovers from visitors and two goals for Tottenham as another misplaced pass from Kolarov was efficiently used by Alli to score another. Quick direct passing from Tottenham meant City often had trouble getting back into position to defend and second goal was proof of that as well.
During the second half Guardiola changed his approach and in 60th minute changed to diamond in midfield in order to better control the ball as Tottenham was losing strength to close them efficiently. However, as time passed that didn’t produced anything and City started desperately looking for goal pinging long balls. Again, without an effect. In meanwhile, Pochettino responded to diamond in midfield introducing Dier instead of Sissoko. Wanyama and Dier pairing made Spurs defensive block much stronger as Eriksen shifted to right wing.
In conclusion, it seems both teams came on with same idea to get chances by winning the ball high. However, City couldn’t match the desire and intensity of the hosts. Also, Tottenham again revealed that City doesn’t posses quality in the defensive line to play his way effectively against the best opposition. At the same time Spurs proved to be strong contenders for the title this season.