Glory for Guardiola? Mason’s fresh attacking approach vs Pep’s possession play
Manchester City are serial winners in the world of modern football, and this weekend, they have yet another chance to add to their trophy case, as they take on Tottenham Hotspur in the Carabao Cup final at Wembley Stadium. With the Premier League trophy firmly set in their sights, as well as the Champions League, following the victory over Dortmund, Pep Guardiola’s side will be eyeing up a treble this season. Meanwhile, Spurs, now under the management of Ryan Mason, will be looking to claim their first piece of silverware since 2008, when they beat Chelsea in the final of the same competition (then called the Carling Cup, of course). Guardiola and his side have the obvious advantage of having experience in cup finals, having won the previous three finals of this competition, so they know what it takes to get the job done – from both a psychological view as well as a physical one. However, fresh off a debut win under new boss Mason, Spurs will take great momentum and possibly a fresh tactical approach into the final. In this tactical preview, we will look at some of the key tactical aspects of Manchester City from recent weeks; how they find so much success in possession and how their defensive unit compliments that. We will also take a look at the Spurs – their defensive issues that once again were on display against Southampton in the week – there will also be a scope on the attacking methods used by Mason in that same game, as we look to identify the key elements that will be effective against Guardiola’s side.
Team News & Predicted Line-ups
Going into the final, Tottenham have three notable absentees in Matt Doherty, Ben Davies – who have both already missed four games as a result, and finally, Harry Kane (there is an outside chance that Kane features, though). The England striker, who has 21 goals and 13 assists this season, is instrumental to any approach Spurs take in attack, so finding a solution to this may lie with the hugely talented Heung-min Son. Meanwhile, Guardiola has selection issues of his own as midfielders Kevin De Bruyne may miss the final through an injury he picked up in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea (he also missed City’s midweek game against Aston Villa) – so the Belgian’s availability is up in the air at the time of writing. Experienced striker Sergio Agüero is unlikely to be fit too, as he was still recovering from a muscular injury the last we heard. Furthermore, John Stones is suspended after being sent off in the game against Villa.
Both sides have areas that are up for debate in terms of selection, and both sides have positions that almost pick themselves. With Tottenham, a 4-2-3-1 formation is likely, with the trusty duo of Höjbjerg and Ndombélé providing protection to the back four. The debatable area for Spurs is how they set up in attack. Against Southampton, Mason deployed Son on the left-wing, with Lucas Moura as the number 9. However, there is the possibility of shaking things up a little, allowing Son to play central, with Bale and Bergwijn on the flanks.
Guardiola will likely send his team out in a 4-3-3 shape, with Laporte probably coming in next to Dias to replace John Stones. Cancelo is an option at right-back that could be deployed, but we believe Pep will place his trust in the experience and pace of Kyle Walker. Phil Foden has impressed a lot of people this season, and one admirable asset of his game is his versatility – whether he’s playing on either flank or as a central midfielder, he is a threat. We think he may start in a midfield role next to Gundogan, allowing Raheem Sterling and Bernardo Silva to come in on the flanks.
We all know by now how well-drilled and disciplined Manchester City are under Pep Guardiola, and even when they make alterations to their game, as they have done in recent weeks, the players still undertake these tasks as a disciplined unit. City being dominant on the ball is something that we’re used to seeing on a weekly basis, but their off-the-ball work often flies under the radar, not getting the credit it deserves.
After falling behind to an incredibly early Aston Villa goal, City’s reaction demonstrated their intent. When attacks broke down, they were able to anticipate that Villa look to break out quickly and launch an attack. Over the years, this is something that Pep has gotten used to, so it’s no surprise that his side are often very successful in stopping counterattacks. Above, we see Phil Foden, who sprinted back to close down the Villa man after he was able to work some room. This move from Foden meant Bertrand Traore was unable to turn back to find a teammate, forcing him forwards into the immediate pressure of Zinchenko, who was supported by Rodri. Both City players closed in quickly and simultaneously to trap Traore and win the ball back.
We have another example of City being well prepared in the face of a Villa counterattack. The previous example showed City reaction to a break that happened immediately in transition, hence why they had players chasing back to close gaps. This time, however, there was a vital few extra seconds that allowed Pep’s men to set up the way they did. A midfield block of three that was very compact limited Villa’s options centrally, while the players on either side of that block were able to apply pressure to other passing options when needed (this was also backed up by Foden and Silva supplying support in this area). Rodri is also behind the block of three, giving defensive support, screening the situation. This will be a very effective tactic against Spurs on Sunday, as they will look to work in areas like this using Ndombele and Hojbjerg to feed a pass into either Lo Celso through the middle, or one of the players on the flanks.
As mentioned, and as is common knowledge these days, City are extremely good in possession. Their ability to control the tempo of the game with patience and fluidity is a massive part of their success in recent years. They look to pin teams deep in their half, and as we can see above, when this happens, they are able to temporarily abandon their formation to commit players forward. The full-backs drift inside, acting as a half-backs almost. This is important as not only does it allow the midfielders to go forward, which we will discuss in a moment, but being in the positions that Walker and Zinchenko are in, Villa must mark one of them (the closest one to the ball – Zinchenko in this case). This then means Villa have one less body back in defence, which is exactly what City want – it’s almost like Walker and Zinchenko act as decoys. Now, the midfielders – Gundogan and Silva, thanks to the positioning of their full-backs, can take up more attacking positions, and they will look to lurk in the gaps between the Spurs defence and midfield on Sunday. This also allows them to link up with the wide men and also Jesus in a more fluid fashion.
Spurs’ defensive woes
Tottenham rank around halfway in the Premier League in terms of clean sheets, with 10 so far this campaign. For a side that considers themselves a threat to the top four, this number needs to be higher – having said that, it isn’t terrible. But their biggest issue is defending against the top teams. Their record this season against the ‘big 6’ (Man United, Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal) is poor – just three wins from 10, 15 goals conceded in that time. That isn’t to say that their defending is top-notch outside of the ‘big 6’ games either.
Above we see something that Guardiola will definitely look to utilise – gaps to exploit from set-pieces. With the six-yard-box packed out by both teams, Spurs thought they had the necessary spaces covered, but that just was not the case. Danny Ings begins his run around the penalty spot, and makes a simple yet quick movement, which his marker, Aurier, has trouble reacting to. This allows Ings to break to the corner of the six-yard-box, and flick a header into the back of the net. Either Aurier needs to get tighter with his marking, or Spurs need their spare man to supply cover in open areas around the six-yard-box – both if possible. City will look to use players Jesus in the Danny Ings role, with the likes of Laporte and Dias offering a higher aerial threat around the six-yard-box.
Again, we can see how Spurs struggle to defend from crossing situations. Salisu is in a central position for the Saints, yet nobody is marking him tightly, he is able to float between Dier and Alderweireld easily – the cross meets Salisu and he is able to get a good header on the Spurs goal, only to be met by Lloris.
Defending counterattacks can be difficult for any team, but it’s something Spurs will look to rectify. While counterattacks aren’t the first thing we associate with Manchester City, it’s definitely something they have in the locker thanks to the impeccable distribution of Ederson. In the analysis above, Southampton were able to hit Spurs on the transition, and looked to exploit the spaces left by a poorly organised Spurs backline. Ings was able to pull Dier wide, Leaving Reguilon, Aurier, and Alderweireld in the box, with very little shape to them. This allowed James Ward-Prowse to angle his run toward the back-post side of the box and remain unmarked, while Che Adams had the chance to peel away from any marker, also towards the back-post. The lack of a Spurs midfield also allowed Theo Walcott to make himself available at the edge of the box. If City are granted chances like this one at Wembley on Sunday, they are very likely to make Tottenham pay for their incompetence.
Spurs in attack
Despite having the likes of Kane and Son amongst their attacking ranks, all season long, Tottenham have lacked a real attacking identity. Mourinho’s focus on the defensive approach didn’t allow for a fluid, free-flowing attacking style that would heavily suit Spurs, given the players at their disposal. Given that Ryan Mason has only just began his managerial journey with Spurs, it would be foolish to expect to a complete and opposite change, as implementing such methods takes time. As we saw in their game against Southampton in the week, despite picking up the win and despite looking like a side that truly wants to attack, a lot of work needs to be done. This becomes even more difficult when Harry Kane is out injured.
We did, however, see a glimpse of just how good Spurs can be in the final third against the Saints. A lot of their build-up play in this game seemed to focus around patient possession play, but this attack was brought to life with a direct pass from Ndombele, who fizzed a pass into Son at the edge of the box. Son and Moura executed an impressive movement between them that allowed Son to pick the ball up on the turn and lay the ball off to Moura who was able to get a shot on goal. Attacking with more directness and velocity in the final third is Spurs best chance of unhinging the City defence on Sunday.
As mentioned in the previous analysis segment, Spurs often looked to build from midfield with patience – something we are more used to seeing from Guardiola’s team. While they showed glimpses of this playing into their strengths, that lack of identity and confidence is what is missing. Moura, on the ball above, takes too long before playing the obvious pass into Lo Celso – if he had played the pass sooner, Lo Celso had a clear chance at playing the ball into a dangerous wide area for Reguilon. Moura, however, was too slow, so the attack didn’t materialise in this way, despite attempts. But, if Spurs want to explore this method of attack, reacting quicker on the ball is a must. One positive, however, is their confidence to commit players forward to push their opponent back. We saw Ndombele often push forward into a more advanced midfield role – doing this against Man City’s middle three on Sunday could cause Pep a problem or two if executed well.
As every football fan knows, anything can happen in the game, especially in cup football. This final pits a team who, in Manchester City, we have a dominant force who are hunting down multiple trophies this season. A team who makes attacking with patience and poise look easy at times. We then have Spurs, who have had their performances this season ripped apart and heavily criticised – a team in a managerial transition, though, can ignite a spark in the dressing room. Without Harry Kane, Tottenham will have to explore more intricate attacking methods as they won’t have the physicality of Kane (barring a miraculous comeback from injury). Ryan Mason obviously wants his Spurs side to embrace the attacking side of the game more than they did under Mourinho, which could make for a very interesting cup final.