Gundogan’s goals: How City blindsided Tottenham in their 3-0 victory
The 24th game week of the 2020-21 Premier League season pitted old foes Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola against each other in another fascinating clash between Manchester City and Tottenham. Their matches have always been a game between possession and counter-attack with Pep’s team always controlling the possession but not the proceedings in some of their recent encounters.
Both come into the game with contrasting form, as Manchester City have been on a 10 game winning streak in the league since December while Jose’s men have won only 1 game in their last 4 PL encounters. This tactical analysis will look at the tactics deployed by both the managers in this crucial battle. Let’s begin the analysis.
Pep made a couple of changes to the lineup that beat Liverpool 4-1 last weekend with one being a forced change. Gabriel Jesus came in for Riyad Mahrez while Aymeric Laporte was drafted in instead of the injured Ruben Dias.
Spurs made one change to the lineup that beat West Brom with Serge Aurier getting replaced by Tanganga in the right-back position. Moura started in the CAM role for the second game running while Lamela was deployed in the right flank.
Man City’s 2-3-5 shape during the buildup
Over the past 2 months especially in the absence of their key man, Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City and Pep had altered their shape in possession. From their usual 2-3-5 shape, where the full-backs invert into the midfield, they went with a 3-3-4 where only one of the full-back comes interior while the other stays deep forming a 3 man backline against the opposition’s front line. The logic behind the change was to ensure a numerical superiority in all 3 phases. The change in this game was surprising given the previous shape’s success and the 2-3-5’s liability during transitions. The shape can be seen in the image below against the 4-2-3-1 of Spurs.
But there was a small adjustment in the shape that Pep went with and the little tweak worked wonders for them. With Rodri being tightly marked by Lucas Moura and when the full-backs inverted into the midfield either of them was closely marked by Spurs’ wingers in a man-oriented zonal structure. This heavily played into Spurs’ advantage as that allowed them to be narrow and compact while also having coverage to the players. Now with ‘3’ in the 2-3-5 not having access to the ball remaining central, the wide wingers or the attacking midfielders in the half-space had to drop deep. This meant their threat was reduced by not being across the pitch.
Coming to the adjustment that we mentioned Pep made: When the ball went to the respective flank the full-back in that flank would not invert and look to stay wide while the far-side full-back would invert ensuring superiority at least on one side. The issue now Spurs had was with Zinchenko going wide, It was difficult for Lamela to cover him and close the passing lane. If he stepped out it would open the access to the half-space and decrease the compactness. While if he didn’t, Zinchenko could have a free space to run forward into the flank and create a 2v1 along with Sterling (who stays wide free of marker).
The image above shows Son (green circle) staying very narrow to protect the half-space while Cancelo has shifted wide to open a passing lane to him from Bernado Silva that Son cannot block. When the ball went wide, City were easily able to manipulate the Spurs’ players with their movement. Foden then made a well-timed run in behind the defence that caught Ben Davies ball-watching while also having to deal with Bernad staying narrow.
This asymmetrical shape also gave City a defensive advantage. With only one full-back inverting at a time, the other was able to stay wide and a little deep. This meant that Spurs now cannot attack both the flanks freely as they wish and have limited opportunities to counter.
The likes of Jesus and Bernado Silva kept constantly rotating and dropped into the midfield to keep Spurs on their toes and maintain superiority at every instance. Spurs especially had marking issues as a result of this with Jesus constantly dropping and dragging players hence creating a hole in the defence.
City’s movements catch Spurs off-guard
While the shape was to allow access between the City players freely, the movements among them to create open space for teammates was the one that did most of the damage. Constant interchanges and movements by City players kept dragging the Spurs players. The image below shows a brilliant example of that. While the ball is in the wider region with Phil Foden, Bernado Silva and Jesus make runs dragging Ndombele and Dier, respectively, with them. This created a space in the central region with no one to run into for Cancelo. He creates gravity by attracting all the Spurs players towards him. This leads to irregular closure of passing lanes by Spurs as Cancelo has access to both Sterling and Gundogan.
The key to such trigger movements is that it opens a huge space in the wider region for the City players. Coaches like Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa emphasize the importance of stretching the pitch laterally to open gaps in the defence. Also with City taking a lead, Spurs could not afford to drop their winger deep to track the players staying wide and high since they were already a goal down and staying deeper would further harm their chance for a counter-attack. This gave City complete control over proceedings and unlike their previous encounters with Spurs, the domination reflected on the scoreline.
Blindside movements were much more visible throughout the game with the likes of Foden and Gundogan making such wild movements into the box. The first penalty was won as a result of that where Gundogan makes a swift run on the blindside of Hojberg and wins a penalty for City.
City’s second goal too came on the back of a brilliant run on the blindside by Gundogan who thrived with gravity created by Sterling and Foden at the edge of the box. Initially, he sees if he is followed by someone. With Foden making a run to the edge of the box he dragged Tanganga away from his position, Gundogan saw an opportunity to run into that space on the blindside of Sissoko who was focussed on Sterling. His swift into the box was spotted by Sterling and he went on to double City’s lead.
Spurs’ counters fail against City’s delayed pressure
City over the past years have always been prone to counter-attacks and have lost the plot to such teams at the biggest stages. Spurs themselves have troubled them in their past meetings in the PL as well as the UCL. The new defensive tactics mean that the City’s defence do not necessarily push high up and they prefer to stay a little deep to delay the attack and that allows them to bring the numbers back and defend with superiority. This meant that Spurs found too much space in between the lines as the defensive line didn’t push immediately when the ball was lost.
The advantage of doing that is it does not expose the defence against players like Son and Moura who are extremely pacy and good at attacking large spaces. Stepping out and then losing a 1v1 against them is suicidal as that’ll expose your goalkeepers against a very good finisher in Son, highest difference between npxG and non-penalty goals this season. While the City defenders back-track, the midfielders coming back look to put slight pressure on the ball carrier while being cautious to not commit a foul and pick up a card. Lamela is pressured where instead of looking to play a tackle they try to close passing lanes. This forces Lamela to play a pass just behind Kane and it becomes difficult for the Englishman to control. The City defence took that as a perfect opportunity to then step out while Kane is off-balance and they intercept the ball.
When Spurs managed to maintain possession and take it to the City’s half, City shifted to a compact and narrow 4-4-2 shape that closed the interiors with very fewer spaces in between the lines. But even in some instances, Spurs could have used the slightest hint of space offered in between the lines, but they failed to do so. In the example below, we can see City in a 4-2-4 shape with little space in between the lines. But at one instance, there is a huge space behind Sterling and Son has moved wide to drag Cancelo with him. The likes of Lamela and Moura are on the opposite flank and one of them should have used the space created in between Cancelo and Stones. In another scenario, Son himself could have moved inside into that space and make himself a passing option to Davies.
The past few weeks have seen Manchester City strolling away with the title having already taken an 8-point lead ahead of their derby rivals Manchester United. Despite the absence of Ruben Dias, City’s defence looked comfortable as Spurs’ passive approach coupled with Pep’s upgraded defensive tactics meant they came out of this game largely untroubled.
As for Spurs, they struggled to get going with very less threat from their front-4 especially their talismanic duo of Kane and Son. The loss means they are 3 points behind London rivals Chelsea and a point behind Everton who also have 2 games in hand over them.