This piece originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
With their chances of Champions League qualification decreasing markedly by the week, Tottenham face an almighty struggle in Sunday’s game against Manchester City. It will be an intriguing affair and one virtually incomparable to last season’s encounter at White Hart Lane, in which a Samir Nasri-inspired City destroyed a Spurs side in obvious disarray.
The scale of the transformation that has occurred under André Villas-Boas becomes clear when one realises that only three of Tottenham’s starting eleven from August 2011 will feature in this season’s fixture. Even then, three is an optimistic figure – in reality it could be as low as one: Michael Dawson is a racing certainty to start but Benoît Assou-Ekotto and Gareth Bale could miss out due to a loss of form and an ankle injury respectively.
Nonetheless, Roberto Mancini will approach this fixture in the same manner as he did last season’s. His tactics have come under increasing scrutiny this season as City’s European challenge again ended before it began, while the Premier League title so dramatically won in May was meekly surrendered before February.
While the Italian’s tactics do leave something to be desired, his side’s problems are equally rooted in the makeup of their squad. Despite the colossal outlay, Manchester City’s team has been incoherently assembled; there is no formation or system that gets the best out of enough of their players simultaneously, and each setup Mancini chooses creates as many problems as it solves. Sunday’s game seems likely to see a textbook example of this problem.
In terms of system and shape, nothing has changed. City continue to use a narrow 4-4-1-1 formation which becomes a 4-2-3-1 when in possession. For the most part, David Silva starts on the right and drifts inside, receiving and playing short passes in the number ten position. When used, Samir Nasri performs a similar function on the opposite flank, with James Milner and, on occasion, Aleksandar Kolarov offering a more orthodox option when selected.
A conventional if somewhat defensive double-pivot sees two of Gareth Barry, Javi García and Yaya Touré play in deep midfield, while Sergio Agüero plays off of Carlos Tevez or Edin Džeko.
Positional variety is a key theme: players in the third and fourth bands freely swap positions or come together to create two-versus-one situations, making it near impossible for defenders to mark or track direct opponents. If all else fails, Barry and García form an ultra-defensive block in the second band and Yaya simply steamrollers through the middle.
However, while the tactics remain the same, the results have changed. At the start of 2011-12, the system worked spectacularly well. In their first fourteen Premier League fixtures, City went unbeaten and scored forty-eight goals. However, their European opponents faced them with a smarter, counter-attacking game and City’s lavish squad suddenly resembled the Emperor’s new clothes. They fell at the first hurdle, losing to both Napoli and Bayern Munich.
This seemed to have a profound effect on the players and with the second half of the season came a loss of form which turned them from Barcelona-lite into something akin to a more boring version of Fabio Capello’s England.
This ponderous, impotent Manchester City is the one we have come to recognise this season. They aim to monopolise possession and do so effectively but lack a lightning-fast wide player to stretch the play or enable instant transitions from defence to attack. Their domination is often stupor-inducingly sterile, as Silva and Nasri try to combine with Agüero and Tevez to find a way through teams that have had ample time to get eleven men behind the ball.
If they had a player like Pedro Rodríguez – or even Aaron Lennon – to vary the threat and open up space, they would not have this problem. Mancini has recognised the need for an injection of pace in a wide-forward position but his solution to this problem, Scott Sinclair, has proved hopelessly inadequate.
Of course, while their squad compares unfavourably to those at the top of the European game, the abundance of individual talent remains comfortably good enough to see off almost all Premier League sides: they almost always win by having an excellent set of individuals rather than by being an operative unit.
From the Manchester City line-up against Wigan it is possible to extrapolate the likely eleven that will face Tottenham. At right-back the excellent Pablo Zabaleta will return in place of Micah Richards, Matija Nastasić will come in for Joleon Lescott and Gaël Clichy will play at left-back instead of Aleks Kolarov.
James Milner will provide industry and graft from the right, offering verticality as well as defensive solidity. Sergio Agüero was removed at half-time against Wigan due to fatigue, while the similarly exhausted David Silva missed out altogether, but one can expect both to start in a game of this importance.
Carlos Tevez has slimmed down and found his shooting boots but he has started each of City’s last seven games and may be rested. In his place, Mancini seems likely to select Edin Džeko, whose four goals at White Hart Lane last season saw him re-establish himself in the Italian’s thinking.
While the Bosnian appears to be on his way out of the Etihad, he has a knack of scoring important goals and his manager will be acutely aware of this as the rigours of a long season begin to limit his options up front.
Although a Tottenham side containing a fully-fit Sandro and Mousa Dembélé would have come close to pressing the life out of them, City’s problem on Sunday will not be establishing dominance in the middle of the park. Expect them to dictate the majority of play but to struggle to create clear openings.
Their most likely way of scoring will be via a set-piece or through Silva and Milner doubling up on a full-back to overload and create a pull-back from the byline. To that end, I expect Silva to play a more regular number ten’s role, enabling him to move right towards Milner’s flank without leaving his own position vacant.
This will, of course, leave Agüero playing on the left, a position which he has taken up on several occasions this season. This is the problem to which I referred at the beginning of the piece: to get the best out of Silva, Mancini must play Agüero in a role which limits his effectiveness or vice-versa. There is no real way to pick these players together in a system that gets the best out of all of them.
Nonetheless, I saw City use this configuration against Fulham in September and, while the Argentine striker was far from his most incisive in the wide role, the Spanish playmaker known as ‘Merlin’ to his teammates was close to perfect.
The knock-on effect of starting Silva centrally should also see Gareth Bale’s supply reduced, as Parker and Dembélé will have to sit very deep to limit the space available to City’s astute and potentially decisive playmaker. If they play high, Silva will take up a position between the lines and find his teammates with astute and potentially decisive passes. By sitting deep, they at least force Silva to play in front of them – but reduce their capacity to find Bale quickly.
From Tottenham’s point of view, there is not a lot they can do selection-wise. The media’s attention will, as ever, be on Gareth Bale, but Aaron Lennon would be a bigger miss in a game like this. Spurs would have benefitted hugely from his pace and distribution at transitions, of which there should be many, while their lack of width has made them genuinely painful to watch of late.
The rest of the team more or less picks itself. AVB’s best bet – or at least the most adventurous – is to emulate the approach of the sides that have beaten Manchester City in Europe. Let them have the ball, lure them in, allow the space behind them to open up and then break into it.
In Lewis Holtby, Gareth Bale, Gylfi Sigurðsson and Emmanuel Adebayor Spurs have a front four that can counter as well as the best of them. Add in a wildcard vertical threat like Jan Vertonghen coming forward to score as he did against Swansea and the counter-attacking plan makes a lot of sense. If Spurs find themselves chasing the game – and let’s be honest, they will – then Clint Dempsey and Tom Huddlestone can add that extra directness and crispness of distribution to aid the cause.