Pochettino will need all his tactical nous to stop Man City juggernaut
For the first time since Mauricio Pochettino took charge of Tottenham in 2014, the club is enduring something of a slump. Their Champions League performances this season have been superb -- they have more points than any other in the competition -- but their league results have been underwhelming.
Progress under the Argentine had, until now, been constant. From fifth in his first season, to third in his second season, to second last season, Spurs have been travelling in the right direction in terms of style and results. But now they find themselves challenging for the Champions League places rather than the title -- mainly because they're failing to take points from their direct rivals.
Spurs lost 2-1 to Chelsea, 1-0 to Manchester United and, most surprisingly, 2-0 to Arsenal when many expected them to dominate at the Emirates. None of these results are disgraceful on paper, but Spurs are no longer underdogs in these top fixtures. Their 4-1 victory over Liverpool shows Tottenham still have an appetite for the big occasion, and the tactical nous to outplay comparable sides, but it's increasingly becoming a distant memory.
The other reason Tottenham aren't fighting for the title, of course, is because Manchester City appear unstoppable. This weekend's trip to the Etihad, then, is an opportunity to set the record straight in two different respects -- to show that Spurs can win big matches, and to prove City are fallible. Ending the unbeaten record of Pep Guardiola, who Pochettino has clashed with both in Spain and England, is added motivation.
Guardiola and Pochettino's meetings when in charge of Barcelona and Espanyol, respectively, were fascinating. Pochettino was one of the few managers in La Liga who ordered his side to press extremely high, essentially taking on Barca at their own game. Pochettino attracted plenty of praise for this approach -- sometimes they successfully managed to nullify Barca's passing moves, sometimes they were thrashed. But Pochettino isn't a manager who believes in parking the bus against Guardiola sides, and we can expect an aggressive approach this weekend, too.
The problem for Pochettino, though, is the number of defensive injuries he's forced to contend with. Victor Wanyama is a long-term absence, Toby Alderweireld will be out until February, while Davinson Sanchez's three-match suspension is a particular problem because it means Eric Dier is required in the centre of defence, rather than midfield. Which means you can almost consider this four absences in the central, defensive positions -- Alderweireld and Sanchez from defence, and Wanyama and Dier from midfield.
If that sounds like it's stretching the point, it's worth remembering that Tottenham need to be solid, disciplined and aggressive this weekend -- in the central midfield zones where David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne operate.
These two, more than anyone else, get Manchester City playing good football. They're the two most prolific assisters in the league, No. 10s converted into No. 8s. Last weekend, Jose Mourinho used Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic in borderline man-marking roles against them, and while City dominated at Old Trafford, Silva and De Bruyne weren't at their creative best. It was the movement of Raheem Sterling that caused more problems, while City's goals came from set pieces.
Does Pochettino have anyone who can play those roles against Silva and De Bruyne? You suspect he would have fielded both Dier and Wanyama in those roles, if he were able to call on a fully fit squad. Without them, Pochettino needs to do something clever.
In that 4-1 win over Liverpool, Spurs' most impressive domestic performance of the year, Pochettino fielded an all-technical midfield trio of Harry Winks, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, but that seems unworkable against this City side. Alli and Eriksen probably don't have the defensive discipline for this task, while Winks endured a difficult game against Brighton in midweek.
There are less creative, more combative players in reserve, but Moussa Sissoko has been used in more of an attacking role and Mousa Dembele hasn't yet demonstrated he's up to full match fitness. A combination of these two seems like a huge risk, and you wonder whether Pochettino would consider playing a makeshift centre-back in order to push Dier back into midfield. Ben Davies, for example, has appeared comfortable on the left of a three-man defence -- and in a match where centre-back play is about positioning, mobility and pace rather than strength or aerial power, he could do a job in a four-man defence. The problem there, however, is that he'd be playing alongside fellow left-footer Jan Vertonghen, and neither would be comfortable playing to the right.
Pochettino is regarded as one of the most astute and original tacticians in the Premier League, and this weekend may require something truly innovative to stop Manchester City. There is, after all, simply no template for stopping them -- they've only failed to win against Everton, having been reduced to 10 men from an early stage. Pochettino can hardly simply pray for a red card.
Alternatively, Pochettino might decide his only option is to revert to Plan A: pressing high and remaining ultra-compact. If Tottenham don't have the individuals to nullify City's two most dangerous players, they must nullify them in a collective sense. Don't deny De Bruyne and Silva space by tracking them, deny them space by squeezing the defensive and midfield lines. Don't try to dispossess them, but instead press higher, forcing Manchester City's makeshift centre-back combination of Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi into mistakes. Tottenham haven't pressed as intensely as in previous seasons, but it might be their only option.
What Tottenham must remember, too, is that this City defence can be exposed. Mangala and Otamendi are not world-beaters. Left-back Fabian Delph, while performing reasonably well in his unfamiliar left-back role, has made mistakes in traditional defensive situations. Pochettino will know all about how to exploit the weaknesses of Kyle Walker, too. Spurs must attack. To dare is to do, as the Tottenham motto says. Pochettino must heed that advice.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.