Another trip to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, another goalless loss for Manchester City.
Like an Ostinato repeating itself throughout a melody, Manchester City missed their chances, Spurs’ defensive unit minimized the threat and the pace of the Spurs attackers caught City on the break.
Going into Sunday’s game the main talking point was Harry Kane and his absence, but in that, Spurs managed to field a pacey front three in Lucas Moura, Heung-min Son and Steven Bergwijn. In addition to the characteristics of those players, it was also their positioning out of possession that made them dangerous on the counter.
Pep Guardiola was trying once again to hit the note of using narrow full backs in the build up phase. After a rather unsuccessful trial against Leicester City in the Community Shield, five minutes into this game Joao Cancelo was close to giving City the lead after his narrow positioning allowed him to make a darting run inside the box, but his shot went wide of the far post.
That was the last of a high quality chance coming from the idea of the narrow full backs, mainly due to how Spurs were prepared in their defensive phase. Narrow full backs for Manchester City might imply that Tottenham’s front three marked the City full backs, but that wasn’t the case.
Spurs’ front three were even narrower out of possession, focusing on blocking the passing lanes into any of the City midfielders or the dropping Ferran Torres.
The most affected City player was Fernandinho, who wasn’t only placed in the cover shadow of Spurs’ front three, but was also tracked by Son so that City’s back four don’t pass the ball into the Brazilian comfortably.
Son executed the role well and at times dropped deeper than Lucas and Bergwijn to maintain blocking the passing lane into Fernandinho. If Son is positioned higher in this example, Ruben Dias can comfortably find Fernandinho behind Spurs’ attacking line.
Manchester City’s progression through the center of the pitch was controlled as Tottenham’s front three blocked the passing lanes into the City players trying to present themselves as passing options for City’s back four.
Taking out Fernandinho and the City players trying to drop in-between the lines was only half of the tune, the other half is how Tottenham made it hard for City’s narrow full backs to progress the ball.
The logical sequence after City’s central options were blocked was to go wide and with the full backs narrow, the pass from Ruben Dias or Nathan Ake towards Cancelo or Benjamin Mendy could be made quickly — due to the short distance — limiting the time Spurs had to adjust their shape.
However, Nuno Espirito Santo’s side were prepared for the next step after blocking City’s central options. Dele Alli and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg were presented with the task of pressuring Cancelo and Mendy once they received the ball, bursting towards the Manchester City full backs to put them under pressure and limiting their options.
That could have allowed more space for the City midfielder on that side — Jack Grealish in this example, but Oliver Skipp’s role was to cover for Alli and Hojbjerg by shifting towards the space when either Alli or Hojbjerg were moving out to pressure City’s full backs.
An example here further illustrates how Tottenham’s structure worked when out of possession. A narrow front three blocked the option of central progression for Manchester City, disabling the option of Fernandinho and forcing them wide to Cancelo where Alli is prepared to pounce.
Once that pass is played, Alli moves out to pressure Cancelo to deny him the opportunity of going inside the pitch to create an overload centrally. Meanwhile, Skipp starts shifting to cover for Alli….
…..putting himself in a position to recover Riyad Mahrez’s failed pass.
In the second half it was the same and City weren’t given the opportunity to go into their machinery rhythms. Again, the Tottenham narrow front three denying the pass into Fernandinho or even beyond into the channels, giving Dias the only option of passing towards Ake or Cancelo.
The Portuguese defender chose to find his compatriot, but Alli was already on the move before Cancelo received the ball. Minimizing the time and space that the City right back had on the ball, while Skipp in the background was shifting to cover for Alli.
Cancelo managed to bypass Alli in this example with a wall pass with Mahrez. By then, Skipp was in the correct position which allowed the Spurs midfielder to win the ball back after a poor first touch from Cancelo.
By limiting City’s progression through the center and pressuring the narrow full backs, Tottenham managed to make it a tough game for the Champions. Yet, City had chances but their three most threatening chances came from two set pieces and a deflected cross that followed an offensive transition. In possession, City didn’t cause Spurs major problems.
Also, the narrow positioning of Son, Lucas and Bergwijn out of possession made them more lethal on the counter as when Spurs retrieved the ball the three were closer to each other, thus they managed to combine easier on the transition.
Nuno’s first audition was successful but contrary to the Ostinato that is City’s trips to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, he wouldn’t want to repeat Jose Mourinho’s full melody at Tottenham.