Manchester City vs. Tottenham: Pep's men press but wasteful in attack
Tottenham snatched a point in a thrilling 2-2 draw at the Etihad on Saturday, where Manchester City were dominant but wasteful. Pep Guardiola long appeared to have outmanoeuvred Mauricio Pochettino, only to see Spurs come from 2-0 down to draw following a remarkable second half spell.
As ever, the two managers came out fighting, using adventurous game plans that featured fervent pressing and high defensive lines. Pochettino's system looked perilous, the wing-backs closing down City's and putting Spurs' back three up against three attackers.
City probably had enough chances to end the contest in the first half alone, their pressing forcing Spurs into grave errors near the box. So many mistakes occurred that Pochettino switched systems before 30 minutes had been played.
Yet City stayed dominant and looked likely to score from one of their passes in behind the high defensive line. They did just that for the opener, before Kevin De Bruyne converted the second. Their intensity then seemed to drop a little, however, which handed Spurs the chance to score twice from two chances and grab an unlikely point.
Proactive tactics up the tempo
With Guardiola reverting to 4-3-3 and Pochettino sticking to his 3-4-3, one of the points of interest here would always be how the two systems matched up. In hindsight the answer should have been simple: with these managers in action, the interpretations of the formations are always likely to be the most attacking ones.
This was particularly evident in the pressing. With City on the ball, a more cautious strategist might have dropped the wing-backs into a back five. But Pochettino told Danny Rose and Kyle Walker to push up on the City full-backs, while Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen marked the centre-backs plus anchorman Yaya Toure. This often saw the Spurs back three face three attackers, and though Walker would sometimes tuck inside as Rose pushed upfield, and vice versa, it was hardly a defensive system.
The same applied the other way. Guardiola instructed wingers Raheem Sterling (right) and Leroy Sane (left) to help Sergio Aguero press the back three, while Pablo Zabaleta (right) and Gael Clichy (left) harried the wing-backs. This had the potential to be even riskier for City, as they only had two centre-backs facing Kane, Alli and potentially also Eriksen, who played deeper.
Still, City had the most success. While Spurs managed to force Claudio Bravo to go long at times, the hosts often played their way out and thus encountered large spaces near and in behind the back three. It was symbolic of the attacking nature of the game that Zabaleta recorded two fine opportunities in the opening stages, first racing into the box to be denied by Toby Alderweireld, then firing a clever corner inches wide past a frozen Hugo Lloris. On the other side, Rose was similarly proactive, but with less direct threat.
City pressing triggers errors
For all that, however, the best source of creativity was City's pressing. Guardiola had two full-backs and three attackers pushing upfield at the same time, which gave Spurs huge problems in playing their way out. The visitors tried to do it anyway, and were lucky to escape unharmed.
A first opportunity came on 12 minutes, when Aguero fired over after Zabaleta had tackled Kevin Wimmer outside the box. Some 15 minutes later, Aguero dispossessed Dier, enabling De Bruyne to storm into the area and shoot wide. Immediately after that, Pochettino switched to 4-2-3-1, pushing Dier up next to Victor Wanyama with Mousa Dembele just ahead.
That created a more traditional formational battle, but City continued to press. De Bruyne blocked a Wimmer pass, triggering an attack that ended with Aguero drawing a save from Lloris. Later, Alderweireld played a pass straight to Sane, which led to Sterling having a shot blocked. At half time, City had made three successful tackles near the box, while Spurs had made three errors leading to shots.
Through balls pierce Spurs defence
There were further aspects that will have worried Pochettino. When City broke through the Spurs pressure, they encountered situations in which their opponents were stretched and vulnerable. The three forwards made cutting runs in behind a high and wobbly defensive line, with City trying seven through balls in total.
At the start, most of these lacked precision -- but some didn't. On seven minutes, Sterling stormed through only to have his cross blocked by Rose, while later, a simple Zabaleta pass over the top found Aguero who skipped past Alderweireld and fired at Lloris. Just a minute later, Nicolas Otamendi was allowed to run onto a Bravo clearance that wrong-footed the entire defence, and eventually won a corner.
That was a startlingly basic way for such a strong defence to get caught out. Four minutes into the second half, De Bruyne duly lofted a pass to Sane, who capitalised on Lloris's ill-fated clearance. That was one of many ambitious De Bruyne passes and, incidentally, it was also he who converted the second on 53 minutes after Lloris fumbled Sterling's cross.
Wasteful City caught out
By that stage, City appeared to be coasting to victory. Pochettino had put Son Heung-Min on the left flank, removed Wimmer and switched Dier to centre-back at half time, but few had seen a goal coming when Alli nodded in Walker's cross.
An injury to Alderweireld forced Pochettino to introduce Harry Winks and move Wanyama down next to Dier. Neither switch granted Spurs immunity to through-balls, though, and City should have had a penalty when Sterling ran through and got pushed by Walker. Either way, a mere minute later, Kane set up Son who made it two goals from two shots on target.
City were certainly unfortunate in that spell, but it was also true that their number of ball recoveries high up the pitch had dropped since going 2-0 up, which did not help. They nearly forced a late winner anyway but, once more, their inefficiency proved costly.
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